WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT INFLUENCE

by K. L. Cook
Spalding MFA Faculty, Fiction

IMG_5B702B6CCEA7-1As both a writer and teacher, I’ve been obsessed with the question of influence, both nonliterary and literary. It’s informed my scholarly work as well as my fiction and nonfiction, not to mention the kinds of courses I’ve designed, such as Forms of Fiction, Sudden Fiction, Short Story Cycle, Literature of the American Dream, Shakespeare, The American West in Film and Literature, and Family Systems in Film and Literature. A couple of years ago, I taught a special topics course for MFA students at Iowa State University entitled The Ecstasy of Influence, in which the students and I explored what we talk about when we talk about literary influence. It is one of my favorite courses—and one that helped me reshape the kinds of questions I now focus on for most of my other creative writing and literature courses.

So what do we talk about when we talk about literary influence? Some critics and writers believe that the story of a writer’s work is the story of that writer’s influences—what Harold Bloom famously refers to as the “anxiety of influence.” Writers, however, might more profitably embrace Jonathan Lethem’s inversion of Bloom’s phrase: “the ecstasy of influence.” Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and some of the most interesting art comes from this explicit impulse to tip one’s hat to a master. In music, it’s called remixing or sampling. In film, it’s called a remake. In literature, we think of it as intertextuality or homage.

Some kinds of homage are free-form modernizations of texts. Other kinds of homage involve direct engagement with the world of the text itself. James Joyce’s Ulysses, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, and the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? all retell Homer’s The Odyssey. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres sets King Lear in 1970s Iowa. Sena Jeter Naslund’s Ahab’s Wife reimagines Moby Dick from the perspective of the mad captain’s wife. Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel March retells Little Women from the father’s point of view. Anne Sexton’s Transformations reinterprets the Brothers Grimm from a contemporary feminist perspective.

Sometimes the desire for intertextuality may not be benign. We don’t, as writers, want to tip our hats; we instead want to satirize, or pick a fight with, a specific literary text, an author, or even a whole genre. Hamlet is a deep parody of the popular revenge tragedies of Elizabethan England. Shamela is Henry Fielding’s satire of his rival Samuel Richardson’s sentimental novel Pamela.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard deconstructs Hamlet, telling the tale from the clueless friends’ perspective, revealing the histrionic self-indulgence of the Prince of Denmark. In Possession, A.S. Byatt deconstructs the Romantics. E. L. Doctorow sends up the historical novel in Ragtime. Edward P. Jones reconceives slave narratives in The Known World.  Wild Nights! is a collection of Joyce Carol Oates’ novellas about the last days of such writers as Twain, Dickinson, and Hemingway, written in those writers’ styles.

While there’s not room here to unpack everything the students and I discovered in my Ecstasy of Influence course, I do want to recommend three seminal essays by T. S. Eliot, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Lethem that served as the intellectual backbone of the course and that helped us (and I hope will help you) more rigorously examine both our literary and nonliterary influences.

T. S. EliotIn his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot suggests that “immature poets borrow; mature poets steal.” To become a mature poet or artist, Eliot argues, you must find a way to “extinguish” or “escape” your personality. The artist is not a personality but a process, not a vessel for a personal outpouring of feelings, but an organism, or an instrument, a sensibility designed to create a complex and compelling aesthetic emotion. He recommends that the artist not concentrate on his or her distinctive individuality but rather his or her place within larger literary and artistic traditions. What are the traditions in which you must steep yourself—“self-sacrifice” yourself to—in order to become a mature artist? In what literary history do you want to situate yourself—to keep it alive and to alter it by your own art?

Toni MorrisonIn her essay, “The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison discusses the way her own understanding of literature and her place within it arose from a “matrix” of slave narratives, personal memory, and the recollections of others. She speaks in particular about the rhetorical strategies and purpose of slave narratives, and the difference between what can and cannot be said in those narratives. She writes into the space of the unspoken, the veiled, the mysterious silence of history. And she asks writers what matrix they write into, what rhetorical traditions they might subvert, what histories they might rediscover. What is veiled or unspoken or interior that you should examine in your writing? Morrison’s primary analogy is archaeology—what she calls the “site of memory” (her own memory, as well as her family’s, her community’s, her nation’s, her race’s), which she attempts to “excavate” through her fiction. Do you conceive of your own work as a kind of cultural and personal archaeology? If so, how?  If not, what analogy best suits your own process—and mission—as a writer?

Jonathan Lethem Ecstasy of InfluenceIn his essay (and eventual book) “The Ecstasy of Influence” (a title I cribbed for my course), Jonathan Lethem brilliantly argues that all art is “sourced,” whether attributed or not, and that originality in art and writing comes not from our own invention but rather from our influences, which he suggests should be embraced and relished rather than ignored, disguised, or protected in a kind of “usemonopoly.”  Part of what makes this essay so brilliant is that Lethem lets the form of his piece reinforce his argument, using a collage and a free-quoting (without attribution) approach, which he “sources” at the end of the essay.

In these essays, Eliot, Morrison, and Lethem not only show how to navigate through and steal from your major and minor influences, but also how to own those influences, building upon and adding to already rich traditions and literary communities in which you wish to claim a space. Eliot, Morrison, and Lethem also urge a more conscious, analytical, and proactive relationship between your writing and reading, and a method for going about it that is both inspiring and liberating.


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K. L. Cook is the author of three books of fiction: Last Call, The Girl from Charnelle, and Love Songs for the Quarantined. He is a member of the faculty of the MFA Program for Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and the MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.


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