"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

Do you know who Jonathan Lethem is? He’s a writer of contemporary literature, and a pretty “important” one. He wrote Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, which might be familiar titles to you. He’s what he might call a “white elephant,” a supposed eminence of the medium, trotted from one public radio interview to the next. 

He is a huge nerd.

And like all huge nerds (by definition!), he loves to talk about, and takes very seriously, the media he consumes.

The Ecstasy of Influence is a collection of some of Lethem’s nonfiction work, and it focuses on the extremely particular cannon of his personal interest—Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Phillip K Dick.  It’s a series of love letters to figures like Bob Dylan and Italo Calvino. And, look. I love those guys. I love Bob Dylan so so much. I can’t even begin to tell you! And the goddamn name of this blog comes from a very particular Italian short fiction writer.

And his essays are full of a random spattering of really good stuff. His introductory essay is great, and it’s even courageous (insofar as any kind of writing can be courageous in America in 2012) in the way it recognizes and semi-rejects the social script of the good, humble, grateful novelist.  His piece about Calvino and completeism is great.

But I can’t love Lethem.

This is a good opportunity to admit I’ve never read any of his fiction. Ooops! I don’t know why. I bet he’s great. I think partly it’s that his most famous book is called Motherless Brooklyn, and I don’t know anything about New York or have much of an interest in it.

But there’s also the other thing. Lethem, in his essays, is a fierce defender of Genre. Even more particularly, he’s a bulldog of tough, urban genre, the kind I imagine to be soaked in substance abuse and self-sufficient sub-cultures. I don’t like those kinds of people.

I mean, I’m sure he’s a great guy! And I like that kind of literature just fine. But I don’t like people who take their defense of Genre very seriously.

Oh boy. How do I even explain why? Is there even a real reason?

Here’s the thing. There is a conversation that takes places a thousand times a day between people who like to read. This conversation is about the merits of things like science fiction and fantasy, detective stories and westerns. “Why don’t people take such things seriously!” the readers of George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss cry. “It's the boring serious fiction that needs to go!”

And I’m very exhausted with the genre side of things. Here is why: I read mostly contemporary Literature. Capital L, award winning stuffs. But I also like a LOT of genre books. Ray Bradbury is my all-time favorite author. The Once is Future King and Watership Down are, for my money, some of the best and most accessible books ever written. Everyone should read them!

And everyone I know who likes “Literature” also likes good genre stories. Literally, every single person I know with an interest in, say, William Gaddis, is also interested in--I don't know--Gene Wolfe. The only closed-minded readers I’ve ever met are those who are particular to one genre: the engineers who only like sci-fi, the women who have a series of particular mysteries they love.

Lethem understands that to a certain extent intellectualism is a show, and he almost—almost!—admits in his essay “What I Learned at the Science Fiction Convention” what I had wanted to say to him so badly since page one: Alternative-ness is as much an affectation as is erudition!

Anyway, I’ve taken a side road here.

The title essay is the showpiece of the book. You can read it here, and it’s all about plagiarism and influence and borrowing in creative writing. This is as important and tricky an issue as I can imagine for people interested in fiction. He does a great job, and that’s all there is to it. It's clever and smart and great.

Although in a weird way, I prefer Malcolm Gladwell’s exploration of the topic in “Something Borrowed,” because, while it lacks the stylistic fireworks or rhetorical depth of Lethem’s piece, it’s just so crystal clear and simple and personal and I think everyone interested in intellectual property should read it.

That’s all I’ve got! Dinner time!


  1. Great post. I think there's something to be said for the Genre defenders... people get really caught up in their particular subculture, and it's a point of pride to announce the "depth" with which they've submerged themselves. I love talking to fellow Star Wars nerds about Timothy Zahn because he is, for my money, the best SW writer ever. Meeting someone who has read your particular genre gives you the same thrill as, oh I don't know, finding out someone you know shares a mutual friend, or went to the same high school.

    Not everyone is as interested in ALL of literature because it's awfully daunting and there isn't really a good place to start. If someone were to try and become a learned and accomplished reader of modern literature, where would they even start? If I wanted to do that, I guess I would start with all of the recent pulitzer prize winners and go from there.

    I haven't read Lethem's work either, but it sounds like he is, in a very educated and fancy-pants way, trying to defend and advance his favorite Genre to the literary world. He knows, because he is a white elephant or what-evs, that a particular kind of person reads his work, and that they will get what he's talking about. I mean, I don't give a shit, but I get it. You get it too, and this post is long, so I'm gonna stop it now.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Kurt!

    I hope it doesn't seem like I'm saying genre stuff is bad or silly or anything.

    I mean, I like genre stuff a lot (I read and loved/hated all the Myst books). I guess what I'm saying is that EVERYone likes it, and people don't REALLY look down on it, and it therefore doesn't need to be "defended." ComicCon is the biggest entertainment event in the world. Everyone and their mom loved Lord of the Rings. The literary establishment takes serious science fiction seriously (which is very specifically what Lethem wants), and everyone who knows how to read has enjoyed Ender's Game.

    What everyone DOESN'T love is contemporary literature. THAT is the kind of thing that needs a defender (or that's probably the wrong word; a champion? an apologist?). I mean, you sort of made the point yourself: people think of that kind of writing as something to make you "learned and accomplished." It's rareified and stale and unfriendly. That's in contrast to Timothy Zahn, who you might read to be entertained.

    But Comptemorry Lit can be entertaining as well as satisfying and valuable, even if it is an aquired taste sometimes.

    More importantly though: By setting up genre work in OPPOSITION to Fancy Pants Lit, by spinning the narrative that the snooty New Yorker-readers don't appreciate us, you (not YOU you, obvi!) are putting up a wall between enthusiastic, smart book lovers and a whole world of supersatisfying work. And that's what bothers me about Lethem's stance.

    I appreciate the enjoyment of being part of a subculture. But when you start to define your subculture as "particularly and importantly NOT this other, similar thing" then people miss out. There's almost no such thing as a bad reason to like something, but there are lots of bad reasons to dislike something, and that a thing clashes with your personal identity is one big bad reason.

  3. And to be clear: I love it that people "get really caught up in their particular subculture." I just want to expand the circle of things that people get caught up in. I just want everyone to love everyone, Kurt. What's so wrong with love, huh? HUH?