February 15th, 2011 / 11:57 am
Craft Notes & Random

Who or what is your daddy.

Generally my least/most favorite part of any interview with any artist, and interviews with writers in particular, is when s/he’s asked “who are your influences.” It’s my most favorite because I’m a sucker for superlatives, all those kinds of “favorite book/food/animal” type inquiries. But it’s my least favorite because the answer is often a let-down, or something bordering a cliche, or someone so far-flung that I find myself questioning the subject’s veracity. Which I don’t really want to do. I mean, it’s an interview, not an interrogation, and I’m no arbiter of anything, as much as I might want to think I am.

In any case, I think there are interviewees who probably feel pressured by that question–they want to sound smart, and interesting, and relevant:

“Well, lately I’ve been reading a lot of Derrida with Yo Gabba Gabba on mute, and the overlaps are pretty incredible…”

“Obviously I owe a debt to Pynchon, and to a certain extent, Dostoevsky. But I’d be dishonest if I didn’t credit Bazooka Joe in some way…”

“Oh, I’ve been in an all-consuming back-of-cereal-boxes phase. General Mills, mostly. And I’m re-reading Proust’s A la Recherche for the fourth or fifth time.”

You get it. That mix of high and low, theory and novel, pop and baroque, that says I’m an intellectual, I’m legit, I’ve read things, but I also know how to breakdance.

I’m thinking about how DFW watched a lot of television as a kid.

I’m wondering what we mean, exactly, and Eliot/Bloom notwithstanding, by influence. Beyond the page, beyond the book, beyond all art, what informs your work, that you are conscious of? Do you ever try working against those forces? What’s your objective correlative, and how does it function? Like the bay leaf in the pot that flavors everything vaguely but needs to be removed before eating? You could eat it, but it wouldn’t taste very good? But maybe it needs to be eaten and it needs to not taste good, so that it can be evacuated?



  1. stephen

      kewl tote bag

  2. deadgod

      [t]hat mix of high and low

      ha ha

      not just interviewees; critics show off in this way constantly

      and not just books; movies, music, food, entertainment

      It’s true that every person’s hedonism entails a mix of (some level of) educated taste and (some amount of) trashy sensation. Also true: the publication of one’s “mix” is a hard-to-resist temptation to advertise.

      The Art of Building a Resume – blech ha ha ha

  3. stephen

      p.s. i am always eating ;)

  4. Yepeye

      Nabokov read the tabloids on the train.

  5. Tyler

      I always found Lethem’s conversation on the Ecstasy of Influence to take this conversation into a better place. Agree with him or not there is something comforting in accepting our influences, plagiarizing them, collaborating with them–even if dead–and just allowing them to be. They don’t have to be traceable but if a writer accepts them, mocks them, then moves on, they might find their own work just that, their own. Essay is here (http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081387).

  6. nba

      my obsessions inform my work. the thing i’m most obsessed with is American social culture. i hate that i believed for so long that there was something wrong with me because i wasn’t socially outgoing. i’m angry. haven’t made my peace with it. yet. so i write a lot about how my life is about me vs. THE HUMANS who i never got around to appreciating as a species. it’s always surreal. i hate real life. all kinds of real lives.

      influences. don’t have any. or not any i’m aware of. wouldn’t mind having a few if it made me feel more like a normal writer. or a normal creative person. i don’t reject the idea of influence. i just can’t seem to appreciate, really appreciate, any writing that comes from outside me. what’s my problem. do i even have one. I’ve never read a work that moved me. that inspired me. that enriched my life. books have only held my attention and entertained. and I’m always in the middle of a book. There has never been anything in me that wanted to read a book for a second time. i love my writing. i prefer my work over the works of anyone else but i don’t expect anyone to love my writing as much as i do. i don’t even know if i would even like that. i think, maybe, it’s because the writings of others don’t resonate with me completely. Maybe a small portion of a work will feel relevant to my own life. Hardly ever do I think ‘ahh, i know what that is because i’ve felt it too’. mostly i find myself not identifying with anything. the same way i find myself not identifying with people (THE HUMANS). i’ve never seen myself in a piece of writing. But my writing is always entirely me. Maybe I’d be a ‘real’ writer if I was involved in more hero-worship but since that’s probably not going to happen I’m ok with not having a “daddy”.

  7. Terdwarld

      Nice post.

      And to keep it high/low idiot aloof- I will add I’ve heard Lagerfeld is REALLY into Diet Coke soda, and you know, I’m into that.

  8. Amy McDaniel

      Something I’m conscious of, that is neither an influence nor a favorite, is Harper Lee. I’m conscious of it because she only wrote one book, and she was older than I am now when she did it, and lots of people read it and she’s famous even if she doesn’t want to be. So I could still write a book that lots of people read and become famous. Not that I couldn’t if she hadn’t already done it, but it helps. I think of Julia Child similarly. She wrote more books, but she was older than I am now when she wrote the first one, which is the one the most people read. She was famous, too. I miss being precocious. I console myself with these simple facts about famous women authors.

  9. Christopher Higgs

      I love the conjunction of Derrida with Yo Gabba Gabba!

      Odd synchronicity: while sitting in my car yesterday waiting for the appropriate time to enter a building for a meeting, I was simultaneously reading Bataille and listening to Nicki Minaj. In a very real way, I would say that I share affinities with both of them — which is how I might address the question of influence.

      I don’t think of myself as being “influenced” by anyone so much as I see my alliance with others, my shared affinities, or to put it another way: I think I am possessed by the same specters who possess certain others. The specter that possesses Nicki Minaj possesses me and it possesses Bataille. I know it. I can feel it. I can hear its breathing in between their words — be they spoken or written. I recognize it.

      For a time I thought about this idea of influence as a kind of tribal affiliation. In an interview I did with Blake at Bookslut awhile back I put it in those terms. I said that when I first read Derrida I had the distinct feeling that we shared an intellectual affinity: our particular perspectives correlated. It was not so much a matter of “learning” from him, although that was part of it, but more a matter of discovering a long lost member of my tribe. Now I think of it as possession. As a haunting. This is, for me, a more interesting way to think about influence. I like the sinister aspect of it. I like the deviousness it suggests. And I like the fact that it does not suppose the primacy of the elder. In other words, just because Derrida wrote before me does not mean that I am writing after him.

      But you’re asking specifically about influences beyond art — a striking question — am I influenced by my choice of food, by my relationship with my cat, by my desire to wear neckties, by my posture, by my race, my class, my gender? Am I influenced by the time of day at which I usually write? Am I influenced by the weather? These all seem relevant. I like thinking about the idea of influence in these ways. It’s pleasurably strange.

  10. Kristen Iskandrian

      Chris, thanks–the comments/questions in your final paragraph are precisely what got me posting. I too see relevance everywhere, in everything, or at least–I can. I guess it can become almost distracting–considering all of the things I like/prefer/habitually do/identify with, etc., and how and where they might invade the work, and do their points of entry leave little wounds, and do these wounds ever get infected, etc.

      Minaj & Bataille! You’ve charmed me. Please do a mashup post.

      And: I adore the idea of Haunt.

  11. shaun gannon

      this is cool because i am influenced by karl