Monday, 14 June 2010

Jodi Loves Vladimir

According to tests conducted in my bathroom, we are only 4% ourselves on the page. The other 96% is a patchwork of untraceable, unmanageable sources passing in and out of our consciousnesses.

I recently wrote an essay for my Napier MA Theory & Authorship module about Roland Barthes’s Death of the Author. The theory posits, rather glumly, that writers can stake no claim on originality, that their texts are a tissue of unconscious influences. Nothing is authentic, therefore the writer cannot claim to have “authored” a work, to rule Godlike over their outpourings.

When writers are asked to cite ‘influences,’ they are being asked to hold up a mirror to their vanity and delusion. If Jodi Picoult cites Nabokov, we chortle chortle chortle. Oh, ha-ha-ha-ha! Oh, Jodi! How you would kill to be Nabokov! Similarly, Martin Amis. Oh, Martin! How you would kill to be Nabokov! Young Nabokov. Oh, Young Nabokov, how you would kill to Old Nabokov! And so on. The word ‘influence’ is therefore meaningless for a writer. Who is to say what influences our writing? It is an equation we could spend our careers completing and still be nowhere closer to the truth.

Writers are shaped by a million unconscious fragments of past, present, now, whenever. Jodi Picoult is as likely to be influenced by Nabokov as she is talking for twenty seconds to her butler.

Growing up, the writers I admired most were Will Self and Alasdair Gray. I tried to write like them. I wasn’t shy about it. I wanted to write Lanark-meets-Great Apes. Then I wanted to be Dostoevsky. I wanted to write Lanark-meets-Notes From Underground-meets-Great Apes. Things got out of hand when I started to write. I began to incorporate attitudes from films, music or other sources. My work became a wasteland of meaningless snatchings from whatever selective bubble of culture I inhabited.

Ergo = failure. Instead of aping various styles, I tried to clear my head of clutter, to reveal the unexpurgated me on the page. This was a disaster too, because the unexpurgated me had some issues. He had some issues, man. So I was forced to work these issues into the prose, rather than write a tract of various anguishes, and my writing improved. Titchily.

I still don’t feel ‘defined’ as a writer. I have no idea what ‘influences’ me, or what I would cite as my greatest drive, my reason for writing. Perhaps that’s for others to decide. I went to see Yann Martel speaking a few days ago, and he spoke of writing to make sense of the world, to understand more clearly his own place in a cosmos of indifference. (I paraphrase. Well, I don’t phrase at all). I feel the same applies to me too.

My only hope is that my own work doesn’t inhabit some godawful realm of solipsistic indulgence – all that matters is me, what I am doing here, and screw the Nigerian orphans. Too many writers are fond of the Big I Am. And that stinks. (I say, talking about ME, on MY blog). I understand now why Dave Eggers switched from the obsessive self-indulgence of his early work to the complete self-erasure of his current work. Too much of YOU is a bad thing.

The struggle for understanding on a grand theological and philosophical level is universal, is a never-ending routine of futile head-banging. The aim of literature, surely, is to provide an insight, another way of thinking, that helps us feel more comfortable in ourselves, feel more at home in this Godless blob of infinite insignificance. I sure hope so.

P.S. Thank you to Cruella Collett aka Mari Salberg for co-awarding me the Fabulous Sugar Doll Blogger Award over on her entertaining and informative blog. I would like to award Mari my Macho Granite Socks Blogger Award in return. Thank you and enjoy!


  1. Notall of what I'm going to say is original, it's anamalgam. :)

    We start life relatively blank.
    We see people we admire - a parent, brother, sister, teacher, friend. We rad about people, things, attitudes.
    As you say, it all goes in.
    However, it is our personal selection process that makes us who we are, in that we are unique.

    So, how about our writing?
    I'd say it is pretty much the same.

    I think our lives, however long or short, determine what we write about.
    Me, I like to make people think - work hard sometimes. That's why I haven't managed to publish a novel yet. :)
    I can do that with "Me me me" stories, with "Whodunnit" stories, or with "What the fuck is he on about" stories. I like to try them all.
    Others like to stick with one genre. That's what makes us different as well.

    We can disapear up our own arses pondering the what and why's of it. I don't give a toss anymore, I just like to fill up those pages.

    You mean it's NOT about me? (I snorted when you said, "(I say, talking about ME on MY blog)" Bloggins is such a narcissistic endeavor, yes? And it's so true that our influences are too many and too oddly mixed to really be influences exactly... I mean they are, but one does far better to read and let those things push their OWN woggly way into our writing than to do anything intentionally.

    Woggly. See. I think that is your influence exerting itself on me. I'm quite sure I would never use such a word if I didn't read your blog.

    And CONGRATULATIONS SUGAR DOLL! Well deserved. You always make me happy too.

  3. Oooo, I've been craving the Macho Granite Socks Blogger Award ever since I heard about it (which was right about when I read it just now). Yay!

    As for the part of your blog that wasn't about me, (but somehow it was anyway - what do you mean we should restrict the me-ness of our writing? Do you think Younger Dave Eggers secretely wanted to be Older Dave Eggers? What about Will Self? Surely, he always was [him]Self through and through?)

    As for Barthes, he is dearly beloved by historians. And when I say that, I mean that we all secretly hate him because he uninvented us. As long as he remains our intellectual superior, however, there is nothing we can do but accept that the world wants us to love him. Staple postmodernism!

  4. What? You mean every word that comes out of me isn't original? Pah. Oh wait, "Pah" is Mark's word.

  5. Mike: I can't wait to read your (eventual) debut. It's bound to happen at some point: you are a hard-worker and the cosmos appreciates the passionate grifter.

    Tart: Woggly! My new favourite word for "unique and individual". I aspire to be a wonderfully woggly writer.

    Mari: It's a thorny (or thoggly issue). Even Self and Eggers are "themselves" through a whole raft of unidentifiable sources. Do we love the writer or what makes him the writer? Hmm. Well. I love the writer. It's easier. Even Barthes. (God knows how he turned out so Barthesy).

    Chris: Plagiarist! Oh damn. I stole your blog title a week ago. Umm. We're even then.