Sunday, August 30, 2009

Literary Influences

Recently, I've been discussing Raymond Carver with a few other writers. Some people insist that his work was influential. My contention has been.....not so much. However, this dialog has made me think of something that is worthy of discussion: what is literary influence and how is it qualified or quantified?

In a response to Joe's blog posting on Carver, I have to ask is someone like Carver or Wolfe, or Bellow or Malamud (all important writers) more significant in their influences on the world of literature and that world's affect on popular culture and the American identity than someone like Anne Rice. Whoa. Relax and hear me out. I'm not going to defend Anne Rice. I enjoyed "Interview with the Vampire" and her sequels, but I never considered these books to be bold and artful works. However, Anne Rice's work, much to her reborn Christian chagrin, has given birth to such writers as Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton, and Stephenie Meyers. The tsunami of vampire novels and urban fantasy that has swept over us, producing a storm in the marketplace has definitely affected younger readers and many older ones as well. We can scoff at the literary quality of some of this writing, but they nonetheless have influence. Especially those works which find their way into theaters and onto our television screens. By insinuating themselves into our national psyche, they open doors for many other writers and also for ideas that might have been less palatable outside of genre.

Lovecraft had tremendous influence as well. I would argue more than Mr. Carver. Lovecraft's bleak view of the cosmos and many of his literary concepts would find their way through much of our culture, in book and film, without us being aware that he was the source of its influence. Kids reading Lovecraft in the fifties and sixties grew up and remembered his work as they churned out their own material. Bradbury and Bloch, both who corresponded with Lovecraft, were quick to give him the kudos he deserved. Stephen King has freely admitted the affect that Lovecraft has had on him. And while most people haven't read Lovecraft (he isn't for everyone, much of his work is dated and plods along), most people have encountered him in some form, without realizing it. I remember mentioning the name Arkham (a fictional town created by Lovecraft) and having someone chime in: "You mean the insane asylum in Batman"?

I will be exploring this in more detail at some other time, the idea of what constitutes literary influence, what we mean by the phrase. It seems to be thrown around rather liberally. I think it would be the subject of several fascinating essays.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Cthulhu Fraternity

Someone heard me talk about Cthulhu recently and gave me an odd expression. "What is that?"

"Cthulhu? He's the God who lies dreaming at the bottom of the ocean, waiting for the stars to be right so he can rise and welcome the return of the older gods."

"Yeah." I recognized the response and the facial expression. My father had that expression when he leaned against the doorframe gazing about my room the year I moved out on my own. He nodded at the posters and darkness, letting his gaze fix on a skull I had on my desk, a half-melted candle on its crown, held there by wax drippings.

"When are you going to grow up?" he would ask.

"November 23rd at 3:45 pm, EST."

My father glanced at the skull and left, mumbling something over his shoulder in Yiddish.

I'm not going to give you an in depth defense of my love for horror, but I will relate something that might help explain the appeal. At least of the Lovecraftian world. Lovecraft, for those who might not know, was the author of the horror stories that have come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft never gave us a consistent and definitive view of this mythos, but perhaps his allusions to the chaos that is the reality of the universe are more chilling for their vagueness.

When I was much younger I remember reading a veiled reference about what happened off Devil Reef and feeling a thrill because having read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", I knew what happened there, dammit!

"...Cap'n Obed an' twenty odd other folks used to row aout to Devil Reef in the dead o' night an' chant things so laoud ye cud hear 'em all over taown when the wind was right? Tell me that, hey? An' tell me why Obed was allus droppin' heavy things daown into the deep water t'other side o' the reef whar the bottom shoots daown like a cliff lower'n ye kin saound? An' why'd the new church parsons--fellers as used to be sailors--wear them queer robes an' cover their-selves with them gold-like things Obed brung? Hey?".

I knew what happened that brought in the feds with their dynamite to Innsmouth, dammit. Reading these connecting threads made me feel as though I knew something others didn't, that maybe I might be part of an exclusive club for reader and writer alike. Only it isn't the sort of club one talks about out loud and the members aren't necessarily the sort of folk you want to see under a full moon.

Don't laugh. That sense of belonging is important to literature. Readers of the Harry Potter series have that sense of unity. Lovers of Sherlock Holmes have societies around the globe. Let's not get into the insanity that Star Wars and Star Trek have bred.

So why not the mythos? Why not a sense of fraternity among those who thrill at stories in this narrow vein of horror? In a time where the threat of global warming and nuclear war are real threats, the chaos of the Lovecraftian universe makes dark sense and serves to remind us that we are not as important as we think we are and the danger we present to ourselves, while significant to the species at large, is minute next to the indifferent chaos that waits in the eternal blackness where the gods sing in madness and the pipers play to soothe the vortex that is the blind idiot deity. Kinda catchy, don't you think?

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hey, Raymond!

I made the error of asking: "Who is Raymond Carver?"

They rolled their eyes and fell into spasms of literary shock. What? You haven't read Carver? We thought you were well-read, we thought you were a serious writer. Phillistine!! This was the second sin I had committed within an hour. I had turned to the quiet and desperate young man sitting next to me and quietly commented about a book he had in his lap: "Cormac Mccarthy? I'm really not impressed by him. He's one of those Oprah hypes, isn't he? I mean, 'The Road' is sort of a wannabe genre piece." The young gentleman in question, who has these amazing veins that throb at the sides of his head, uttered: "Everything he's written is wonderful." I'm sure he wanted to say something else, something to put me in my place, but I accepted his chastisement and crossed my leg. It's a thing Jews do in remembrance of circumcision.

So I decided to correct my deficiency and ran to Barnes and Noble and picked up an anthology by Carver called: "Cathedral". I suppose I could have picked up a McCarthy book as well, but the circumcision thing...well, you know.

For the unenlightened, Carver wrote during the seventies and eighties, primarily in the short story market. His work appeared in The New Yorker and several literary magazines, the sort that people tend to buy because they look good on them at Starbucks. His work received tremendous praise. He was heralded as a minimalist. Some people described his writing as 'dirty realism'--a phrase which apparently means that writers forsake description to allow context to associate meaning.

After reading his work, I have two impressions. First, I respect Carver. He is a working class stiff who seeks to capture a moment, a feeling. He understands the absurdity and darkness of our lives. As a recovering alcoholic and a man who held all manner of jobs and suffered for his mistakes, his work feels like therapy. I recommend it. Is it Hemingway? No. Let me go further--hell, no. I know the post modernists will crucify me for this, but here's my second impression....

Many of the people who read Carver, or who are going to read Carver, are as far removed from a working class environment as they can get. And if they once came from a working class environment, then Carver allows them to look down their noses or to find some strange and sick fascination with people whom they would walk past quickly on the sidewalk.

I don't blame Carver. He probably did some major fist pumping when he was embraced by the literary elite, but I'll bet when he was home, kicking off his shoes and reading some literary interpretation of one of his short stories, that he probably chortled and said: "What a schmuck."

What did Carver have to say about writing? "I love the swift leap of a good story, the excitement that often commences in the first sentence, the sense of beauty and mystery found in the best of them; and the fact - so crucially important to me back at the beginning and now still a consideration - that the story can be written and read in one sitting." (from the intro to 'Where I'm Calling From, 1998).

Now I love his economy. It stops the reader and presents him with a mirror. However, sometimes his stories, the ones I've read, lack in plot, internal or external conflict, or even theme. Dirty realism, you know. I suspect Carver stuck with short stories because he couldn't sustain theme or character development through a novel. He couldn't handle the pacing of a longer work or the consequences of certain scenes he painted. In that way, I think he was something of a cheat. Throw something down and then the critic can come along and praise it for what it doesn't do.

Hey, give me credit. I went out and read Carver. I wonder if the weak chinned individual with the nervous eyes and the frightening air of desperation as he massages his McCarthy novel is willing to step outside his 'literary' whorehouse and enter my whorehouse. You know...the work that is read by the real workingman and workingwomen and not the suburbanites who fly through the cities with their windows up and their doors locked.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summer Fades

Summer is fading. I wish I knew what to do to slow down experience and to hold onto the moment. Why is it that so much of life is spent looking backward.

With class done I am writing again, finishing this novel and working on a short story for an anthology. As I write and age, and listen to the sound of the night sliding against the side of the house, I worry about when I will lose my self-expression, or rather my self-perceived talent.

I have read many writers in their twilight. Some fade hard. Bradbury, who I love dearly, in his most recent works shows his age. His magic is sporadic. It's still there, but it sputters now and his ability to infuse each tale with it is hit and miss. Vonnegut struggled with age, didn't he? His work became manic and disjointed, still mistakably Vonnegut, but after all, "Timequake" was hardly "Slaughterhouse Five" or "Cat's Cradle". Steinbeck's greatest work was in the thirties and forties. He was magnificent in the fifties, but "The Winter of Discontent" and "Travels With Charlie" were hardly "Of Mice and Men" or "Grapes of Wrath".

Some writers never seem to lose a beat.

Some writers age and lose focus, their voice fades and falls into a sorry well.

Sunday, August 09, 2009


Hitting the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, allow me to marvel at the lineup of bands that came together those three days. Of course, I think it is safe to say that some of those bands weren't exactly well-known when they appeared in upstate New York. And some of them had peaked already and were either on their way down, or desperately holding steady.

Jefferson Airplane is a good example of a band that had peaked. Their appearance at Woodstock kept them going for a little longer, but the days of "White Rabbit" were well behind them. On the other hand, bands like Santana, Joe Cocker, and Crosby, Stills, and Nash found their path upward made easier thanks to their appearances.

One of the things that strikes me about the artists who performed was how many of them were never associated with Woodstock, probably because their performances weren't captured on film. Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, CCR, The Band, and several others performed and were solid. And even some who were caught on film weren't done justice. Hendrix? Sly and the Family Stone? Ten Years After?

There is no way any one film could have truly captured the sets of these artists, and that's fine, that's part of the romance and the wonder of the phenomena. All we can do is look at the film, look at the list of performers, and appreciate what we missed, for our imagination can never match the reality. That might be a good thing. is a list of the performers at Woodstock. And, by the way, check out this site:

Richie Havens, Sweet Water, Tim Harden, Melanie, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Biaz, Country Joe and The Fish, Canned Heat, Grateful Dead, Leslie West and Mountain, Santana, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix, Blood Sweat and Tears, Ten Years After, Crosby Stills and Nash, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Who, Joe Cocker, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, The Band, John Sebastian