The Anxiety of (Assigning) InfluenceOctober 7, 2008
I’m rereading John Hart’s books now for an essay I’m writing for the North Carolina Literary Review, and I’ve also been reading and rereading some old Ross Macdonald novels this year, those just for fun. As I was writing the essay on Hart, I began building what I thought were some original and interesting connections between the two — building off the idea about how a genre develops, how new authors reflect on and incorporate what’s come before, how literature is a tradition with the past influencing the present and the future….
So far I’ve come up with several things wrong with this — including, on the one hand, the fact that other people already made that connection with Ross Macdonald (critic Sarah Weinman mentioned it casually and effortlessly in an email exchange, as if it were old news), and on the other, John Hart’s own statement in an online interview that he hasn’t read anything by Macdonald, so really how much influence could there be?
In the fiction workshops that I teach at Mason, I once had my students do an exercise as part of the revision process. Basically, building off of a couple of ideas I mention above, I ask each of the students to choose a favorite author — one whose works are of the kind and quality that the student him- or herself would like to write — and then try to articulate what’s compelling or interesting about that author: style, content, theme… the way the author describes a character’s face, the way the author handles dialogue, the way the author crafts a sentence… whatever has drawn the student to this writer in the first place. After that, they are each asked to choose a passage from their respective author’s works and analyze it more closely for nuances of style and technique — something that the student might take from this chosen writer and incorporate into his or her own writing — and then to turn to their own writings and actually incorporate it: try to describe the face of their own characters with the same accuracy or get the same snap in their own dialogue or push an exploration of an idea in that favorite writer’s work in a new direction in their own. (I model the whole thing by showing what I did with the opening passages of Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral.)
By and large, the students hate this. It saps the joy out of reading! they tell me — and worse, saps the joy out of their own writing, which they see as driven more by unfettered creativity and an imagination let loose to play than by the idea of self-conscious craftsmanship, of reading as an integral and necessary part of our writing lives.
While I don’t think I’m entirely wrong, I haven’t done the exercise since… and I’m really beginning to wonder about how to frame the whole Macdonald-Hart comparison I’m working on.