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!