Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The anxieties of influence

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Can a book be so good that it’s dangerous? As columnist Crawford Kilian has argued on NPR and the Tyee, there are, in fact, novels that offer such compelling examples of voice, style, and originality that they can seduce generations of young writers into following their lead, often with disastrous results. The Catcher in the Rye, for instance, gave Kilian and his peers license to “essentially be a stenographer for [their] own teenage writing”—even though Salinger himself quickly moved in other directions. Other books that Kilian cites as bad influences include The Lord of the Rings, On The Road, and For Whom The Bell Tolls, and while one might argue with his choices—it’s certainly better to be inspired by Tolkien than by any of his imitators, and some of Kilian’s selections, such as Blood Meridian, seem motivated more by personal distaste—you certainly can’t say that he’s wrong. And Atlas Shrugged aside, in most cases, the better and more original the novel, the more dangerous it can be.

The problem, to put it as simply as possible, is that most highly original novels are the product of a long process of development, and when a writer imitates the result while neglecting the intermediate steps, he can miss out on important fundamentals. I should know. In my case, my dangerous book was Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, a wonderful novel, but as I’ve confessed elsewhere, I’ve come to agree with Tom Wolfe that it essentially represents a “literary cul-de-sac.” It gave me all kinds of bad habits, especially a tendency to indulge my characters in extended discussions of ideas, and almost twenty years later, I’m just beginning to escape from its influence, a process that required writing and publishing an entire novel that I’m hoping will exorcise it for good. And I can’t help but wonder where I’d be as a writer if I’d followed a less misleading example. As Henry James says, after comparing Tolstoy to an elephant carrying all human life: “His own case is prodigious, but his example for others dire: disciples not elephantine he can only mislead and betray.”

Since then, I’ve become a lot more cautious about my influences, especially when I’m working on a project. Now that I’ve finally begun to develop my own style, it’s probably less a problem now than before, but when I was first starting out, I found myself picking up the tics and habits of the writers I was reading at the time, always in a diminished, embarrassingly derivative form. As a result, as I’ve said before, I tend to avoid reading works by strong, idiosyncratic stylists when I’m working on a story of my own, and also works in translation, on the principle that it’s best to read good prose originally written in my own language. The trouble, of course, is that since I’m always writing these days, I’ve automatically excluded a world of good books from consideration. It took me forever to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, and even now, there are a lot of worthwhile books, ranging from Infinite Jest to, yes, Blood Meridian, that I’ve been avoiding for years for the same reason.

So what books should a young writer read? It might seem best to play it safe and follow the advice of T.S. Eliot, who notes that if a poet imitates Dante’s style, at worst, he’ll write a boring poem, while if he imitates Shakespeare, he’ll make a fool out of himself. The first thing any writer needs to master is simplicity and clarity, so of all contemporary authors, it might make sense to read only writers who embody those virtues—McEwan, say, or Coetzee. But it’s a mistake to start there as well. Like it or not, every writer has to go through a period of being misled by great authors, and perhaps it’s only by writing a bad imitation of Salinger or Jack Kerouac or even Eco that a writer can get it out of his or her system. Clarity and transparency aren’t virtues that are acquired by reading clear, transparent authors to the exclusion of everything else; one arrives at these qualities at the end of a journey that begins with self-indulgence and imitation and finally concludes with simplicity, with plenty of wrong turns along the way. In short, it’s fine to be misled by great books. Just keep the results to yourself.

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