Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Uses of Influence

Is "influence" of a direct kind from the work of an admired writer a good or bad thing? Something to embrace or avoid?

With all the usual qualifications, it is a good thing, to be sure. Michael Moorcock has suggested that as an exercise writers should compose an entire novel based on the style of another author; I think Moorcock had Joseph Conrad in mind when he made this suggestion. While I wouldn't go so far as to copy a style in this way--I am happy enough playing with my own voice--the suggestion can lead to some interesting places.

Tally-Ho, Cornelius! might fit in this category of exercise, although the major "influence" I am working with in this novel isn't actually Moorcock, whose Jerry Cornelius and Second Ether provided much inspiration, as well as patterns that I could "invert" (itself a technique to be found in the JC material).

Considering the feel, the sensibility and the politics of Tally-Ho, Cornelius!, I trace the most significant influence to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who I would assert is our greatest American author, for the depth and breadth of his perspective, the sureness of his scholarship, and also for the way, amongst all of my country's authors, he brings together aspirations, theology and a political understanding that can be uniquely styled "American." He is the American Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes rolled into one.

Harold Bloom has written a book on the subject of influence. Although I often disagree with Bloom in the details, on the large scale his ideas are always interesting and serve as good points of departure for rewarding speculation.

Here's the Wiki article on his thesis:

The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (ISBN 0-19-511221-0) is a book by Harold Bloom, published in 1973. It was the first in a series of books that advanced a new "revisionary" or antithetical[1] approach to literary criticism.

Bloom's central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extraliterary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because a poet must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee his survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow him to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets.

Thus Bloom attempts to work out the process by which the small minority of 'strong' poets manage to create original work in spite of the pressure of influence. Such an agon, he asserts, depends on six revisionary ratios[2], which reflect Freudian defense mechanisms and the tropes of classical rhetoric. Later books, especially Kabbalah and Criticism and A Map of Misreading connect each ratio to the Kabbalah.

Prior to writing this book, Bloom spent a decade studying the Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. This is reflected in the emphasis given to those poets and their struggle with the influence of John Milton. Other poets analyzed range from Lucretius and Dante to Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery.

In The Anxiety of Influence and other early books, Bloom claimed that influence was particularly important for post-enlightenment poets. Conversely, he suggested that influence was not as much of a problem for such poets as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. He since has changed his mind, and the most recent editions of The Anxiety of Influence include a preface claiming that Shakespeare was troubled early in his career by the influence of Christopher Marlowe.

The book itself is divided into six major categories, called "six revisionary ratios" by Bloom. They are: clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades.



Perscors said...

I remember Bloom once saying in an interview that he didn't want to agree with him and then moving on to quote Emerson "That which I can take from another is never instruction but only provocation."

Kyla said...


I just read "Tally Ho, Cornelius!" as my brother did the cover for it, and I was most pleased! I have not read Hawthorne, but was reminded somewhat of Hermann Hesse in the style and construction (mostly the variation of the writing style in conjunction with the chaos level of the subject matter).

Anyhow, it was quite good, and I was particularly impressed with your abilities with internal monologue, a great difficulty of mine. Not to mention passage of time and scene and so on--the chapter in the museum where Cornelius and Cappy build their relationship has taught -me- a great deal about writing. I do always do my best to draw on the techniques and the spirit of those who inspire me to most truthfully convey my own written transmissions from across the verses!

So thank you for writing an awesome book, and I hope that you shall continue your foray into novel-writing!


Carter Kaplan said...

Perscors: I wonder if somewhere Emerson says provocation can be instructive? Something along the lines of Blake's statement: "Opposition is true friendship."

Kyla: Thank you for the very kind words and encouragement! I am trying! Sort of in a "waiting place" right now, but more soon....

I had forgotten about Hesse, and yes I know what you mean. Now there is someone I must revisit.

And I was just thinking about your brother and must call him. If you scroll down in this blog you can view more of his art work.

Do you have a web site or anything where one can view your material?

Kyla said...

No website at present! I'd be happy to send you some of my work if you were interested (and how honoured I'd be!), though I've no idea if you would be. Between us I'd say my brother carries the higher talents, but I do what I can to develop my own. He said he has been meaning to call you too, btw, so hopefully you got in touch.

Also, I forgot that I wanted to mention I love your depiction of NYC too; it was so finely detailed and brought me back nicely to a place I miss a great deal. I have never lived there but had the opportunity to visit on a number of occasions, and it was always a magickal, chaotic adventureland. Usually cities feel a bit crushing to me, but that place felt as much a landscape as mountains or deserts.

Kyla said...

Oh! I just looked at the other illustrations; I'd only seen a couple of them before. It'd be -really- fabulous if you could print an edition with all of them someday. I miss the days when more books had illustrations ...

Carter Kaplan said...


I've asked your brother to insert the illustrations into the file. When he sends it back I want to publish the fully illustrated version with a hard cover.

Are you on facebook? The magazine Prototype X has a page there. Why not submit some material? There is a description of the magazine and a call for submissions in this blog if you scroll down.

Kyla said...

I am not on facebook; that magazine sounds very interesting though; I always thought it was alarming how difficult it is to get published (or signed to a record label, or so on) if your work falls outside pre-determined boundaries, when the very essence of creative work would be, one would think, to create, not to imitate. I shall have a look, thank you!