The Anxiety of Self-Influence

Last Thursday the Denver alternative weekly Westword published a report from an appearance by Jonathan Franzen. The reporter, Kelsey Whipple, gathered up his “ten best quips.” I scanned the article for the most tweetable of those quips and posted it:

Franzen: “At this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing.”
October 6, 2011
There are a couple of this that struck me about that quote (besides the fact that it would fit in a tweet). It’s a provocative statement, for one—few writers publicly declare themselves the biggest influence on their own work. And though Franzen gets a lot of abuse he doesn’t deserve, I was no fan of Freedom; his comment struck me as in keeping with that novel’s self-involved tone.

Thing is, that wasn’t Franzen’s entire quote. He added: “Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers.” This omission (the whole quote wouldn’t fit in a tweet) caught the notice of novelist, teacher, and critic Allison Lynn:

Hoo boy. There’s a Franzen quote being taken out of context (and mocked) on Twitter. In context, what he’s saying actually makes sense.
October 6, 2011
She clarified:
As a young writer, you’re much influenced by other authors/works. Later on, you’re influenced by the trajectory of your own works. #Franzen
October 6, 2011

But I recalled that Franzen was the writer who, in 1991 (finishing his second novel, arguably no longer a “very young writer”), found a balm for his “despair about the American novel” in Paula Fox‘s Desperate Characters.

@allisondlynn @matthunte …especially from somebody who made a big noise about discovering Paula Fox after he was no longer a young writer.
October 6, 2011
@mathitak @matthunte Re: Fox–I think there’s a diff btwn being inspired by a writer and influenced. Inspiration shld always be happening.
October 6, 2011

Let’s go to the tape:

“That someone besides me had suffered from this ambiguity and had seen light on its far side—that a book like Desperate Characters had been published and preserved; that I could find company and consolation and hope in a novel pulled almost at random from a bookshelf—felt akin to an instance of religious grace…. Yet even while I was feeling saved as a reader by Desperate Characters I was succumbing, as a novelist, to despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.”

Which is to say that Lynn has a point—Franzen was making a distinction between what gave him a charge as a reader and worrying over what he was going to model his writing after.

Matthew Hunte pointed out that Franzen clarified some of this in a 2001 interview with Bomb:

@allisondlynn @mathitak And I don’t think Franzen considered himself a mature writer when he discovered Paula Fox :
October 6, 2011
@mathitak @allisondlynn "I was about 13, in some ways, when I wrote the first book. Approximately 18 when I wrote the second."
October 6, 2011

Franzen is joshing in that quote, but he’s serious when he explains how his early writing was a function of older influences:

“[I]n a funny way that”s what the first book, Twenty-Seventh City,
was: a conversation with the literary figures of my parents’ generation. The great sixties and seventies Postmoderns. I wanted to feel like I belonged with them, much as I”d spent my childhood trying to be friends with my parents and their friends. A darker way of looking at it is that I was trying to impress them. The result, in any case, was that I adopted a lot of that generation of writers’ concerns–the great postwar freak-out, the Strangeloveian inconceivabilities, the sick society in need of radical critique. I was attracted to crazy scenarios.”

While with the The Corrections, he claims to be in a different place:
“Actually the forces are substantially the same, but in the new book they take the form of interior urges and anxieties, rather than outward plot elements.” 

In any event, whatever Freedom‘s flaws are, they’re not a function of his trying too hard to imitate other writers. Asked in a Rumpus book club interview last year whether he was influenced by Roberto Bolano, Franzen demurred: “Bolano’s near the top of my nightstand reading pile, but I’m currently still quite innocent of influence.”

Arrogant or not, Franzen’s in good company, as Hunte points out:

@allisondlynn @mathitak …Artistic originality has only its own self to copy – Vladimir Nabokov The Art of Fiction No. 40 2/2
October 6, 2011

9 thoughts on “The Anxiety of Self-Influence

  1. I wonder how much of the to-do over this comment has to do with its speaker, as you suggest. If Franzen had told the audience, “Nice weather we’re having,” somebody would have tweeted, “Arrogant author thinks he’s a weatherman now.” My (brief) experience teaching young writers and (longer) experience talking to more mature ones supports Franzen’s belief. Many young writers seem either afraid of being unduly influenced by their reading (unless this is just an excuse for being poorly read!) or readily willing to admit to such influences (like Zadie Smith with White Teeth). As writers mature, they do tend to dig deeper into their own style, interests, etc. Call it self-involvement (though I certainly wouldn’t), but what I often find in reading writers who are mid-career or later is confidence in their abilities and willingness to take chances not by trying to incorporate new influences into their writing but by allowing their own style to predominate.

  2. I think most writers shy away from listing the other writers who have influences them. They seem more likely to discuss those that have inspired them.

  3. Franzen has the reputation of being arrogant and self-absorbed (perhaps rightly so…) but his comment does make sense, as does the assessment that “influence”, “inspiration” and “imitation” are very different. It takes a while to find one’s own style and writing approach; I recall how in high school, someone ripped apart a story I wrote as being too obviously “influenced” by a series of favorite authors, both in writing style and in plot. Today when I make the mistake of attempting to write, I still sometimes fall back on mimicry of a new favorite author, attempting to echo their own style before developing my own. In that sense, if you are your own influence as an author… that’s good. It means you have your own style and I think that’s pretty important for authors of any age.

  4. Also, Franzen’s comment about Paula Fox’s novel was made when he was 31 or 32 — that’s still a young writer. Evidence that he has matured to “mid-career” status is that his third and fourth novels are very different from his first two.

  5. This reminds me of something I heard David Lynch say. When he was asked about what new films he enjoyed, he said that he didn’t watch any and that he was only interested in creating his own works. You can’t be a creative person who lives in a vacuum. It’s integral that you constantly expose yourself to new works and sensations.

  6. I enjoy Franzen’s comments on literature and writing more than his actual writing. To me, his comment is pretty innocuous. On the other hand, I think he could use some outside influences to improve his writing.

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