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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?