The Fantasy of Influence

1.

The kids at n+1 have created a neat little ad campaign. They’ve taken old photos of famous dead authors and given them copies of n+1 in Photoshop. The famous dead authors—Honore de Balzac, Leon Trotsky, and Susan Sontag—are supposedly telling you to visit the n+1 store and buy stuff.

The fantasy of influence 

Balzac died in 1850. Trotsky died in 1940. Sontag died in 2004, a few months after n+1 published its first issue. As far as we know, Sontag never interacted with the magazine.

We’re not immune to the humor of these ads. They’re a smart critique of consumer culture, with its ubiquitous product spokespeople. At the same time, the ads serve the useful purpose of naming n+1’s favorite authors, which gives you an idea of how to understand n+1.

2.

Two articles about Jonathan Lethem’s new book, Chronic City, compare Lethem to at least a dozen other writers in order to describe his work. They reference Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, Paul Auster, William Gibson, Anna Kavan, William S. Burroughs, Raymond Chandler, John Barth, J.G. Ballard, Franz Kafka, Woody Allen, and Marvel Comics. That’s a lot of names to drop for one book.

Lethem has self-consciously styled his work on some of his favorite authors. He wants you to recognize their direct influence on him, even if it’s just (as with Pynchon) in the names he chooses for his characters. Critics who write about Lethem want to show you they’ve spotted all his influences.

3.

Clarice Lispector was described by Gregory Rabassa as “that rare person who looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf.”

Clarice resented the comparison—understandably—because she had never read anything by Virginia Woolf.

4.

In Harold Bloom’s famous thesis, all great authors are compelled to create something new because they are intimdiated by the work of their literary forebears, and afraid to simply repeat what’s already been done. Bloom’s criticism describes a kind of literary netherworld, where famous authors, living and dead, exchange techniques and actively develop one another’s ideas, like a pantheon of immortal gods. There may be anxiety on the part of livings authors who contend with the huge influence of their predecessors, but there is also a fantasy, on the part of Bloom and his readers, that all our dearly beloved writers are trading recipes in heaven.

5.

Who benefits when an author is described as a combination of other authors?

When people reference a famous dead author, do you felt like they’re saying, “God is totally on my side?”

Are books just a mix tape of other books?

Should we be anxious about how much good stuff has already been written, or should we brag about how we stole it for our own writing?

Is Leon Trotsky going to rise from his Mexican grave and pulverize the offices of n+1?

.

4 Comments

Filed under Close Reading, sNYROBbery, Speaking Ill of the Dead

4 responses to “The Fantasy of Influence

  1. Jonathan Lethem wrote an article (http://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387 – but you’ll probably have to be a subscriber. I’d attach a pdf but wordpress doesn’t truck with that) in HARPER’S about plagiarism and authorship and influence. I really liked it, but less because of anything it said about how authors treat each other and more because of this paragraph:
    “Today, when we can eat Tex-Mex with chopsticks while listening to reggae and watching a YouTube rebroadcast of the Berlin Wall’s fall—i.e., when damn near everything presents itself as familiar—it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in reimagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for ‘real’ to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights.”
    This is what concerns me about technology and art – not as far as using technology to make art, which is fine, but using technology to understand or archive or reference art.
    But this isn’t what the fiction advocate wants to know. So in response to that pressing question, hell yeah, Leon Trotsky is going to go all Chupacabra on n+1 editors, one by one, and coagulate their sucked blood into the shapes of a hammer and sickle.

  2. fictionadvocate

    Thanks for bringing it down to my level at the end, Jessa.

    As usual, I wrote this under the false impression that I was talking about books themselves, but it turns out I was really talking about how books are described, advertised, received, and evaluated.

    I like that paragraph from Lethem, and I like the whole plagiarism conceit of his article. But it seems like he’s beating a dead horse when he argues that all fiction is heavily indebted to other fiction. Like, duh. That’s been a truism forever. Only snobby people with a really short memory would fail to agree with that right away. It’s like when graphic novelists and genre fiction writers (including Lethem) complain that the oppressive hordes of highbrow readers just don’t understand what [comics/sci-fi] are all about. Who still needs to be convinced that comics and sci-fi are awesome? Who still needs to be convinced that we’re all a bunch of plagiarists?

    What I’m really interested in is how we invoke the spirits of our dear, departed “masters” to describe and sell books today. On some level, isn’t it kind of a desecration to say that Balzac would urge people to buy stuff from n+1? We can’t possibly know that, or check with Balzac, who was once a real person with a right to his own opinions. Lethem wears his “references” like badges of honor, but would all those authors willing bless his work by lending their names? Bloom thinks that genius writers are perpetually engaging with each other’s work across time and space, but the only way that makes any sense whatsoever is as an abstract critical apparatus for Bloom and his readers. It just seems strange to me that we’re so willing to make and accept claims about what famous dead authors would have endorsed… if they weren’t, you know, dead and gone and incapable of endorsing anything. This is how we fall into a trap like Rabassa did, where he defined Clarice Lispector in relation to someone she had never actually read. Invoking the name of a famous dead author reveals more about our need for readymade categories — and our tendency to think of authors as nodes of critical theory, rather than human beings — than it does about the work in question. I realize that authors ARE, in fact, nodes of critical theory, but aren’t they also humans? What’s to stop me from saying that Susan Sontag wanted children to smoke Camel cigarettes? Or that my use of a character named Baby Suggs makes me a direct literary descendant of Toni Morrison?

  3. Yeah, this does seem to be a regular point of inquiry for you, the question of how to make continuous the inclusion of authors in literary conversations, which may or may not take place after they die (because not doing so would be doing them and their texts a disservice), while at the same time respecting their subjectivity as people. I think it bothers me less because I insist on a hard separation of authors and texts – piss poor analysis of a an author’s book offends me more than obnoxious coopting of an author’s personna.

  4. Carrie M

    Balzac wanted you to read n+1 as much as Fred Astaire wanted to you buy a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner.

    It’s always disgusting when an advertiser/marketer co-opts a famous person’s identity, whether the family members authorized it or not.

    I’m putting a clause in my will forbidding my image to be used to hawk anything (well, except maybe Jameson—that’s a product I stand behind).

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