A couple of things I’ve run across on the Interweb lately have me thinking about influences. If you know, me, then you know that this is one of my abiding interests. I’ve published a couple of scholarly articles on it, and should I ever get around to finishing my long-on-hold dissertation, this will be its subject.
When I was younger, I was a bit more obsessional in my interest. I think this was because I was more (self-) aware of my own influences, and felt pretty anxious about them. (Yeah, when I ran into Harold Bloom’s earlier, less-crazy work, it really struck a chord with me.) My concerns were probably affected by one of my favorite undergraduate professors, a Hemingway and Faulkner scholar who pretty much claimed that they were as good as American literature had gotten, and everyone to come since had been a lesser or greater imitation of one or the other. (He claimed to have hung out with the late James Jones when they were both in Paris, and said that a drunken Jones had asked him what was left for him to do after those two.)
Anyway, during this time, I went to a reading by the late John McGahern. For those of you who don’t know his work, he was an Irish fiction writer. I had just read and been very impressed by his novel, Amongst Women, which concerns a family dominated by a tyrannical patriarch, Moran. After the reading, I had McGahern sign my copy of Amongst Women. As he was writing in my book, I couldn’t help myself. I asked him how he, as an Irish writer, felt having to write in the shadows of Joyce and Beckett. Wasn’t it intimidating for him as a fiction writer to have to follow in the footsteps of such giants? How did he do it?
I’m guessing this wasn’t the first time McGahern had heard this question, or some version of it. Well, he said, he didn’t think of Joyce and Beckett as competitors. He thought of them as allies, great allies for a writer to have.
I thanked him and took my book, but I’m sure my lack of satisfaction with his answer was plain on my face. We were talking about James Joyce and Samuel Beckett here. How was it possible to see them as anything other than fearsome predecessors who had already occupied much of the aesthetic territory a fiction writer might wish to explore? The same was true of Hemingway and Faulkner. How could McGahern claim them as fellow-travelers, as friends, even?
From the vantage point of the two-plus decades that have elapsed since then, my own anxiety seems glaringly, painfully apparent. Some writers never get past it: late in his life, you find Hemingway writing to Faulkner about their great predecessors, evaluating them as if they were boxers, declaring himself and Faulkner able to take everyone but Tolstoy. If that’s part of your artistic psyche, then I guess there isn’t much you can do about it. And certainly, every writer, no matter how secure, experiences those moments of uncertainty, of anxiety, of jealousy. Especially, when you’re working in what seems like a smaller field, like horror (or weird)(or strange)(or whatever) fiction, the presence of other significant writers, whether those who’ve gone before and continue to be revered (i.e. Lovecraft), or those whose body of work helped to bring the field greater popularity (i.e. Stephen King), or those who are doing dynamic work that’s gained a lot of attention (i.e. Laird Barron) can feel like a threat to what you’re doing, can feel as if it’s going to distract attention from your fiction. Which in turn leads to all kinds of Oedipally-inflected behavior, trying to minimize those figures whose presence seems most overwhelming.
I think, though, that McGahern had it right. Those writers, the Lovecrafts and the Kings and the Barrons, are in fact allies. Their work is a testament of faith to the field in which I work. The range of their stories, of their styles, helps to demonstrate the variety of plot and style I strive for in my fiction. To be fair, it took me years of developing confidence in my own fiction, in the stories I wanted to tell and my ability to tell them, to arrive at such a view, for what once sounded absurd to sound reasonable. I have to say, though, that it’s a nice feeling, to see yourself surrounded by allies, instead of enemies.