Hi I want to talk about influence a little bit

Posted by @ 1:47 pm on July 11th, 2011

I read this post the other day over at Montevidayo.  It’s about influence.  It’s not terribly long, so you can read it if you want, but I’m going to focus on Joyelle’s opening sentences, the post’s premise:

I want to begin by suggesting my discomfort with the conventions of discussing literary influence. I want to suggest that influence need not come from literary forebears, elders, teachers, or even people. For me this notion of influence, regardless of the gender of the participants, is too close to patrilineage, which bothers me for three reasons: its method of conserving property and wealth, ownership of originality; its copying over of heterosexist, male dominated bloodlines and the reproductive futurism that goes with it; and its commitment to linear notions of temporality—that what comes before causes what comes after, and that the most important thing is to move forward in time. I find all these structures suffocating and confining. I think we’re all conceptually limited by the unexamined assumptions about  temporality, property, gender, sexuality, wealth and inheritance implicit in most discussions of literary influence, regardless of the gender of the writers under discussion.

When I first read this, I thought “oh very cool, nice” and went on with my life.  But the post stuck with me.  I couldn’t shake it.  I keep thinking about it at the gym or in my car.  And the more I think about it, the more accurate, and I’d say enlightening, this conception of influence has become to me and the way I understand and metabolize shit as “influence.”  Essentially, my eyes have been opened in no small way by the idea’s Joyelle presents above.

For much of my writing life I’ve subscribed to the idea of lineage and forebearance (as I’m sure most probably do) because 1) it’s logical — I was taught by Matt Rohrer, who was significantly influenced by (among others) John Yau, who was taught by John Ashbery, who was given Auden’s blessing, and so on and so on; so it’s only natural that I would want to read “what came before” Matt Rohrer because he’s one of my favorite poets and I’ve tried to emulate his writing in countless ways and, further, I can go talk to him about books, whatever, so it’s nice to have some common ground — although, 2) I also never thought to question the idea of literary forbearance/lineage.  And I’d argue that this is symptomatic of a deeper, more fundamentally ingrained way of thinking, borrowed in large part I believe from the college educated’s steadfast subscription to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  It’s not a hard comparison — time happens, things change, trends emerge, call it evolution.


However, the beauty of literature is that it’s not biology — literature’s concerns are primarily conceptual, and intrinsic — “survival” is, for the most part, totally abstract — and, as Joyelle points out, the idea of progressing towards some sort of ideal, the idea of “progressing” in literature as an enterprise, is sort of insane.  “The history of literature” should not be synonymous with “the evolution of literature,” because to think that way seems to me to be narrow minded, flawed, and Jonathan Franzen.  I’d like to raise my hand in support of Joyelle’s argument against traditional ideas lineage and forbearance in literary influence.  Influence should be wide open to be whatever you want it to be, regardless of conventions like “you can’t write this without having read that” or “you have to read Auden.”  Again, as Joyelle says, influence shouldn’t even be limited to books.  Influence should be whatever gets you excited to do the thing.

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