The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, etc. by Jonathan Lethem
Reading this book reminded me of graduate school again in a great way. I took a class with Brock Clarke on literary essays, where we read essays like these and talked about the purpose of this kind of writing, in addition to writing one ourselves. I also remembered Jonathan Lethem from reading Gun, with Occasional Music for Michael Griffith‘s fiction workshop. It was strange and fun–I think Michael had said that his criteria for selection had been writers who did crazy things and got away with them.
So I knew a bit about literary essays and a bit about Lethem when his Harpers essay came out. I read it online and enjoyed it. I thought it was really smart and I pretty much agreed with most of his points. My essay for Brock’s class had been about the virtues of fan fiction, so he was barking right up my alley.
As a teacher, I’m not sure that I’d discuss Lethem’s essay with any students of my own below the graduate level, since some might see it as an invitation to plagiarize. At the high school and undergraduate level, it’s so important to draw a clear distinction between what’s ok to do and what’s not ok, especially knowing you’ll have to stand by exactly what you said about that distinction if you have to fail someone because he or she plagiarized. But once we get beyond the necessity for that black-and-white thinking, it become clear that of course, we are all influenced by our predecessors, and of course, all the words we use have been used an almost infinite number of times before. Plagiarism is inevitable. And we copy what we love. This essay is about the joy of being so engaged in the ongoing conversation that is literature that you can’t help quoting people. It’s about how literature itself is like my brothers’ conversations where they toss quotes back and forth at each other and riff on them (these quotes are from Will Ferrell movies, not novels, of course, but they’re having fun, and they sure are fun to watch). Rather than worrying about being influenced by the writers who came before (Lethem’s title of course revises Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, about how writers “wrote against” the previous generation’s greatest writers, and struggled mightily to be “original”), writers should embrace that influence as what makes them who they are. We are all a patchwork quilt of the various people who have influenced us in some way. Of course this is true. And doesn’t it take a great burden off the shoulders of a young writer, to tell her that she doesn’t have to be completely new, since there is no such thing as new? Rather than anxiously grasping for “negative capability,” she can immerse herself in the books she loves and allow them to bring her own stories out of her. How wonderful.
And when you figure out at the end of the essay that it was itself cobbled together from unacknowledged quotes from other authors? That’s when you realize exactly how brilliant Lethem is. Few authors would have the inspiration to make form imitate content like that, and fewer still would be able to pull it off into something readable, much less so good. It also makes you also realize that the type of literature he proposes is not “easier” at all. In fact, just thinking about the sheer amount of reading and research that would have to go into writing something like this blows me away.
After reading that essay, why wouldn’t I pick up the entire collection?
One thing our class agreed on was that a good literary essay or review makes a reader want to read whatever literature they’re talking about. By that standard Lethem succeeds wildly in this group of essays. He introduced me to writers I’d never much considered, but who are now definitely on my radar, like Norman Mailer and Shirley Jackson. The wildly eclectic collection also included several articles on music that really made me wish I knew more about music. Music must be incredibly hard to write about–Lord knows I’ll never try–and Lethem makes it come to life. His articles show the big picture of the career of the artists he writes about: James Brown, Bob Dylan, and a couple of bands I hadn’t heard of before. He talks about the musicians’ lives, how their music was influenced by previous artists and in its turn influenced others, as well as their impact on his own life. I think he said at one point that in these essays he’s writing primarily just as a fan, appreciating the music. His enthusiasm is catching.
Since it’s so hard to summarize a collection of essays as diverse as this one, I’ll pick 3 of my favorites and talk about them in more detail: “Rushmore versus Abundance,” “My Disappointment Critic,” and “What Remains of My Plan.”
“Rushmore versus Abundance,” makes a great argument for a large literary canon, in fact, as large a canon as possible. Though our feelings of being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of writing being produced currently are understandable, we should not allow that to drive us to limit the production and dissemination of literature, if we really care about literature. We have the impulse to erect what Lethem calls “Rushmores,” through picking out three or four “truly great” novelists or poets (or any kind of art, really) of each time period. However, that closes off so much diversity and possibility. Instead, we should embrace this abundance, without worrying about any dilution of “standards” that might result.
In fact, it is accepting and participating in this abundance which allows for standards to be established in the first place and then to evolve. Lethem makes the best argument possible for why a good critic needs to be first of all a voracious reader: “Standards require not only the acknowledgment of abundance but the absorption of abundance” (372). You can’t develop any standards until you’ve read a lot. If you don’t read much, you think everything is great or everything is awful. Only through taking in a lot of literature do you start to understand the nuanced differences between different works and their qualities. That’s what I’m hoping to do here: absorb as much of this abundance as I can, so that I can develop standards to judge what I’ve absorbed. I don’t want to reduce the literature or tell people these five novels are the only ones they should read this year. I just want to enthuse about the books I love and complain about the ones I don’t. I just want to share my opinion and grow personally through doing it. After all, Lethem says, “What matters, in reading, is discernment and engagement.” (371) I’m hoping that the blog will give me more of these two things that matter.
Lethem wrote “My Disappointment Critic” about his reaction to a bad review by James Wood (who we read for Brock’s class). He objected to the review because Wood made some sweepingly dismissive statements, criticizing Lethem for not developing a character that Lethem considered fully developed. And in general, Wood came off to Lethem in the review as a snob. He couldn’t accept Lethem’s book on its own terms, couldn’t understand a “sensibility through literacy in visual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture” like Lethem’s (388). I agree with Lethem in this. Critics are gatekeepers, and it can be dangerous if they’re too conservative, too invested in the current order, or too unimaginative to appreciate a new way of doing things. With gatekeepers like that, we risk stagnation. I much prefer Lethem’s attitude: “About books I’m a Quaker, believing every creature eligible to commune face-to-face with the Light” (388). I guess I’m a member of Lethem’s literary religion; I believe in honoring everyone’s individual reactions to books. When a reaction of mine is personal, I’ll say so. There are plenty of books I don’t like that others will, and they’ll be able to argue persuasively about why, starting from different values than mine. That’s ok. There’s room for that. I don’t want to commit Wood’s sin and allow my own snobberies, personal hangups, and undeveloped sympathies to prevent me from appreciating a book, even one that is far from my experience.
“What remains of my plan” is Lethem’s answer to the question of why he writes. He says, “I began writing in order to arrive into the company of those whose company meant more to me than any other: the world of the books I’d found on shelves and begun to assemble on my own, and the people who’d written them, and the readers who cared as much as I did, if those existed” (429-430). One of the things I find most compelling about Lethem’s philosophy throughout the collection of essays is the emphasis on engagement and being in conversation. This also makes him an author very much in tune with today’s online literary scene, which is all about authors and readers talking to each other. I appreciate this focus, and if I had to say why I’m reading, writing, and blogging, I might say something similar, though maybe not so eloquently.
Appropriately, Lethem ends the essay with this quote, and I’ll plagiarize his ending. Hope he doesn’t mind.
Nietzsche: “The thinker or artist whose better self has fled into his works feels an almost malicious joy when he sees his body and spirit slowly broken into and destroyed by time; it is as if he were in a corner, watching a thief at work on his safe, all the while knowing that it is empty and all of his treasures have been rescued.” (432)