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The *other* anxiety of influence

Man, there are a lot of smart writers out there! It seems like they just keep getting smarter. Better read, better educated, better schooled in the rich variety of literary theory. And more able, finally, to situate their own work within an historical continuum, to explain who they’ve been influenced by, and how their own work builds on and/or diverges from that tradition.

anxiety of influence
I will situate my prose in an historical continuum. I will situate my prose in an historical continuum. I will situate my prose...

It’s come to the point where I’ve developed quite the opposite of the writerly affliction Harold Bloom famously named and explored. I do not suffer from the anxiety of being too derivative. Rather, I suffer from the anxiety of not being derivative enough. Of not being able to properly locate my work within the sphere of those works to which I must organically owe some debt. Of having my head too empty when I put pen to paper. Of being, at the end of the day, too distracted or dumb to keep pace with the increasingly academic zeitgeist of the literary world.

Ryan wrote a post back in January about feeling less intelligent than he used to in college, and that is likely part of it. But it’s also an observation about the ingredients for good writing, and for being a writer-as-public-figure, and how these ingredients seem to involve a lot of acronyms. Writers have always been readers, of course–many think of themselves as readers first–but if what I’m experiencing is not unique, I’m drawn to wonder whether writers have always been under such pressure to justify their work.

72 thoughts on “The *other* anxiety of influence

  1. Let the work speak for itself, I say. We only have to “justify” b/c there’s noise everywhere screaming for everyone’s attention. Justifying is just another way of saying, Check this shit out, man! I know what I’m talkin bout, muthafucker. Now listen up! It’s promo. Sadly necessary in media-splattered world, I think, if you want anyone to know what you’re doing.

    But ya know… one of the most brilliant writers of our time, Richard Powers, didn’t do any interviews until his second or third novel, I recall. And he speaks about his work the same way he writes, that is, brilliantly. But as I understand it, he’s always wanted the work to stand “as is.” If only this were possible for younger indie writers.

    Thing is, Shya, I don’t think it is. However, I intend when I can to adopt the Frank Zappa approach: have fun, fuck around, shit-talk, contradict yourself, hyperbolize, hypothesize, fabricate…. Maybe if we can bring the same imaginative umph to talking about our work that we try to bring to our work, then everything will work out just fine.

    1. Yes, both you and Douglas below are on to something. The anxiety, such as it is, is born of the constant “need” (this too is an exaggeration – it is a felt need, though more like the acknowledgment of expectation) to remain active within the community. Some of this is self-promotion. Okay, a lot of it is self-promotion. Other times it’s just chatter. But the basic issue is the same: creating and continually refreshing the discourse within which your real writing is relevant.

  2. I feel like I am hyper-aware of my influences. Partially because when I read something that I love I tend to sit down and try to write a story or poem in the style of what I just read. It’s not that I blatantly rip them off, but more like I try to capture the feel of what I just read in my own way.

    Like after doing the video for “Go Beside and Speak” I wrote a silly little poem that was inspired by your poetry, Shya.

    I’ve read at least a book a week since I was 14. There have been many weeks along the way where I read 3-5. Or even more. No matter what I will never have read enough at any point in my life. Too much has been written, too much will be written along the way. It’s daunting. All I can do is try to read the stuff that inspires me, or gets my creative engine running.

    1. I’m honored to have been the inspiration for a poem, Ryan! There is indeed too much to read. Or rather, more than is possible. Sometimes I envy practitioners of newer forms.

  3. What are you trying to do in your work? Tell a story; write beautifully; write shockingly; write “off meter”; write to be “like” James Joyce?

    If we admit that “story” seems perhaps to be finite as a skeleton–a relation of what it’s like to BE at this point in time–then your work might simply be describing what it’s like to BE at this moment in time. If Joyce used Homer (who likely is a “collective” of story-tellers), i.e., used a narrative structure and characters, to create another story is that influence? The common comparison is of building a house, right? Footings, joists, walls, windows, doors…it’s all the same and yet reflects a period and a designer placed in time.

    You all know this of course…the problem as I see it in this constant chatter is that you have such a noisy community of talkers and writers that you now worry about how to sound among that group. How to be unique within that group…how to stand out and be the “next” something or other.

    This is of course VERY DIFFERENT from the contest against the “masters” of literature. This is smaller and more vain and more fearful. This is the anxiety of adolescence. Do you want fame? A career? Or do you want literature? Joyce was not much famous or wealthy–often the greats of literature were the poorest in wealth among us. Their objective wasn’t to be the best among the members of an editor’s stable of “talent”.

    Is this too simple? There is way too much chatter out there in the writing labs of this world…go be alone and write.

    1. You and Jesus are on to something, for sure. There’s a lot of talk. There’s a continuous stream of noise working on the periphery of the creative act. It’s ostensible purpose is often to support that act, but sometimes it receives too much attention, perhaps, and becomes an artist’s sole focus. I tend to go through stages: hunker down when I’m working on a book, and when I come up for air between projects, poke around as much as possible. It’s fun, of course. Much of it is fun. The exposure and the community building. It’s an agoraphobic’s dream. But the negative side to it is the mostly-low-level-but-pretty-chronic requirement that you talk about your own work. It’s not just for book tours now! It’s all the time. You’re blogging and you’re commenting and you’re discussing and at any moment, someone might surprise you with a question about what a line in some poem you wrote means! Or where the particular structural technique you used in a short story came from. Or…

      You’re right, though: it’s small and vain and fearful. I make no excuses for myself. My head is filled with small, vain, fearful thoughts quite often.

      1. “Fear not!” … in the vein of all we’ve been talking about … this is a common refrain in “badbadbad,” my multimedia novel about what happens when sex, god and rock ‘n’ roll meet the social web … it’s what the reverend of first church of the church before church says at the end of every sermon … it’s ironic b/c he instills fear into his congregation, a direct result of greater socio-political pressure as the country wages war w/out end, aka the initiative for peace … sound familiar?

        I say again: “Fear not!”

        Suzuki Roshi says: “Everything is emptiness.”

    2. Douglas,

      Like most everything it seems ‘chatter’ in moderation can be a good thing. Many writers I know are alone very much of the time. Coming to these internet writing labs is a way to break one’s internal chatter and to get encouragement that what one is doing is not completely awful. It seems people would sit in cafes and do this years ago and now we have the internet.

      That said, it’s totally true there is a peer pressure to being the next best thing and to ‘one up’ each other. For those that want this, the internet is here for them. For those who want to just write and not talk about it, there is silence.

      1. The internet should probably just be renamed ‘Ego.’ That’s what it is. I do, many do it. Of course there are many more forces now. Authors want to get their work read in an age where most everything is available within seconds. All of Shakespeare, all of the ny times, the new yorker, there are so many websites and words. Hardy, much less Joyce could imagine the ‘competition’ out there.

        So how else do you get people to read? It seems it’s not enough to write well anymore.

        But in my more politically-charged moments, I feel the common people have been fucked over too much in history not to let them have their voice, and that is the internet.

        1. Yes, I’m with you re: voice is important, as is not being unknown among readers or peers, but focusing on “competition” seems misguided (b/c writing is not about one-upping the other; it’s about dialogue w/ the self, language, story and the greater community that the words address, if that’s their aim) and silly (this lit sphere is sooooooooo small in the greater scheme of media and LIFE).

      2. i like to think about ‘good jealousy,’ the kind of thing where you read or listen to or look at someone’s stuff and it’s so f-ing great that you are filled with wonder someone could do something like that and with a keen jealousy you didn’t do it, and it inspires you to want to make something that great and beautiful too, to keep the conversation of wonderful things going. that’s the good thing about the internet, the community, etc., that you are constantly put in touch with the cool things people are doing.

  4. This, I can get behind. I’m often inspired to contribute to the greater cultural-literary dialogue. I think that’s a lot different than seeing colleagues or peers or fellow artists/writers/whatever as others to compete with, as if we’re vying for the crown of America’s Next Top Model. Ain’t gonna happen…

    1. Competition in quotes. But I already regret using that word. I don’t feel in competition with anyone. More in all the sites, all the things one could read.

      1. And yet, you are verifiably in competition, for every slot in every journal, and every available publishing and marketing dollar (such as they are, which only makes competition more fierce), and every minute of reading done by anyone who might like your work. I don’t think it’s a bad word, and I don’t think the feeling is misplaced. Jesus’s contribution “to the greater cultural-literary dialogue” is all well and good, but you’ve got to fight for people’s attention, or you’ll be having a “dialogue” with the wall.

        I’ve become a keen observer of the double-bind emerging writers seem to be in: forced/expected to promote and champion their own work on the one hand, and derided for being petty and small minded if they seem overly ambitious or concerned with “success” on the other. It’s bullshit.

          1. Tyra, oh Tyra, spread your wings to shelter us poor and downtrodden writers! Spread your legs and welcome us into the safety of your deep, suffer-free snatch! Spread your television signals far and wide, that we may be heard, and seen, for the beauty and bounty we bring to the wor(l)d! Tyra, let us wash up gently on the fair banks of your magic river.

        1. i guess that’s why i try to maintain the right inflection on it. of course, i don’t always and can be as mean and petty and competetive as anyone sometimes, but if i try to view it in a more open sense then self promotion and the like is more like a conversation too. it’s you at the party sharing your enthusiam for whatever you are doing. people like to hear what you are doing, most of them.

  5. I like that idea, Joseph. If it’s like we’re hanging at a party, which is kinda how I see these lit blog dialogues, then it’s more in the spirit of mutual uplift, enthusiasm for our own work, each other’s work, the whole idea that language and writing and reading and books and art and music and film, etc. can be fun and exciting to share, to talk about together, to enjoy via public discourse. Then, of course, there’s also the drinking… but it’s only 8am, so… I’ll get back to y’all later this evening.

  6. Hi Shya–

    Interesting thoughts here– I’ve been just re-reading some classic essays about writing practices and literary tradition (like Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” and Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”), so these ideas have been kicking around in my head as well… It’s funny: I’ve always understood Bloom to have a polemic against Eliot, though his famous theory of influence is so much indebted to “Tradition.” There, Eliot really has a nice dialectical understanding of literary history. In his terms, your anxiety is really the flip side of the same coin–that is, if you don’t situate your work within a historical continuum, the historical continuum is simply going to do it for you!

    So hey, nothing to worry about, huh? ; )

    “The necessity that he [the artist] shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them…Whoever has approved this idea of order…will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

    But more seriously: I don’t think justifying one’s own work should be ridiculed. It CAN be just self-promotion but it can also be a productive engagement with why we love and read literature. And I agree with you, Shya, about that double-bind bs. If you think about Poe’s essay– it’s basically a long justification of his poem “The Raven,” but since he’s so interested in “effect,” how we experience works of literature, he says some really interesting things. I mean, considering Paradise Lost as a series of short poems is quite provocative and I think it’s a valuable insight. Sure, Poe is clearly privileging poetic intensity and may have a bit of anxiety of influence in relation to an epic tradition, but his essay has got a lot of “imaginative ump.” I actually think trying to justify your own work, trying to put forth your own “philosophy of composition” in prose is a great aesthetic and intellectual exercise… I don’t see this as a “pressure,” I guess, but as a useful component of a writing process…

    1. …says the PhD candidate, heh. No, I hear you. In an early conversation with Brian Evenson, he spoke of such work as the best way to gain a receptive audience for the primary work. Essentially, framing your own discourse, so readers have access to a vocabulary to use when reading/reviewing it.

      Clearly, there are a great many people who feel as you do–the multiplication of graduate level writing programs underscores this fact. But I maintain that the impact of this trend expresses itself as a kind of anxiety or tension among those not inclined toward such “philosoph(ies) of composition”–and perhaps even within a subset of those who do in fact pursue a degree (I myself have an MFA).

      In the end, I don’t mean to ridicule this impulse, and I hope that’s not how my post came across. I mean only to weigh in on what is perhaps an inadvertent level of emotional complexity surrounding the enterprise. Like many anxieties, it can certainly be useful–e.g., a fear of failure prompting greater effort–but I think it can also scar.

      1. Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest you were ridiculing the impulse, so, no, your post didn’t come across like that.

        I just wanted to make a distinction between people who might fold beneath the pressure of this trend you’re talking about (and I suppose these are the folks that may get fairly or unfairly ridiculed) and what I think are genuine attempts by practitioners to be articulate about their art.

        I think I see what you’re saying about the “academic zeitgeist of the literary world.” I don’t know– I wouldn’t be bothered by it. Actually, reading over your first paragraph, I’m not sure if writers are really getting smarter or if this really has to do with literary theory or MFA workshops. I guess there’s always a high “level of emotional complexity surrounding the enterprise.” But, we care about what we do, right?

        1. We do indeed. And I think you’re right to make the above distinction. I just wonder what, in this scenario, a “casualty” might look like, and how one would recognize the symptoms.

          1. Important to keep in mind, I think: an MFA or PhD in Lit or Lit Theory and the ability to write eloquently about the objectives of one’s work don’t necessarily mean said work is gonna be good readin’. I’m just sayin’…

            (Full disclosure: I believe MFAs and Maui Workshops, etc. are largely a scam — great for the writing teachers who can’t make a living from their books, an expensive rip-off for the majority of students, many of whom end up in deep debt and do little to nothing w/ their degrees.)

            1. re: mfa’s, i would disagree. obviously they aren’t for everybody, but i don’t think they are a scam in the least. not to mention there were several faculty members in mine that made their living off their writing, did the teaching for the heck of it. as for what people make of their degrees, that’s up to them. my mfa is the only part of my education i feel is worth anything. i am an infinitely better writer for my two years studying with writers who challenged me.

              undergrad i feel kind of scammed by.

              1. that’s good to hear, ryan. but think of the numbers. last I heard, if I recall, EIGHT THOUSAND graduates per year, and that’s just the MFAs, not the PhDs, not the attendees of conferences and workshops, of which there seem to be no end. and how many worthwhile books out of this? maybe I’m just cynical about “higher education” (b/c every single PhD friend has told the same sadistic horror story, and maybe that’s not the same as the MFA scene) but I think, in the least, for every student writer who’s inspired and learns and does something w/ the learning, there are as many or more who are just piling up debt.

                1. but the point being that it’s a choice those people make. i have a ton of student loan debt. like i said looking back i think everything i accrued for my undergrad was a waste. and when it comes to undergrad stuff i think people can plead ignorance (i may have chosen to skip college if i knew what i know now). but by masters and phd time a person knows the score and makes the decision to do that knowingly. if it doesn’t work out the way they hoped that sucks, but i don’t think that makes it a scam.

                  1. point taken. however, I do wonder about the effect of marketing (have you seen the insane number of ads in poets & writers?… I’ve been reading that mag since I was a kid; it was never like this before) and also there’s a pervasive idea in contemporary lit that you *have* to have an MFA to be a legit author or to get published. this was not the case only a few decades ago. many agents even say they prioritize MFAs over non- b/c to them it shows that one is a *serious* writer. this, I humbly submit, is bullshit.

  7. Well, Montaigne says two things I like very much: What do I know, and when it comes to “doing” or “achieving” in life–Have you not lived? Emerson says, do your work and I shall know you.

    So, um…yeah…this is the chatter of the marketplace and all Art is somewhat shaped by this milieu.

    I think there are those of you here who praise the “odd duck” writer–such as Guy Davenport. There’s a man that conversed with his times through the medium of historical detail. A fabulist and moralist whom I doubt had much concern for the chatter of the market.

    How many books are published annually? How many will shortly be remaindered and sold by the ton and shipped overseas to be used as a form of heating fuel?

    How many books does your library withdraw annually–usually all “nameless” fictions. You too shall pass–this market shall pass–this chatter shall pass.

    Do you want recognition or do you want to be an Artist? A Master of your Craft?

    It may actually be useful for you to imagine living in 1865 and thinking–what books would I have readily at hand (if you were well-off) that I could study and learn from and consign yourself to only that literature. The literature then informs you and you will inform the literature–ie, you (the spirit of your age) will read and write back into a deep literature of the past.

    Never ever care about Tyra Banks! Not even to satirical purpose.

    Is it a holy art you aspire to or do you aspire to the marketplace? Will you write the claptrap fantasy called Atlas Shrugged or will you lose yourself to literary history and write out of the depths of a book like Lowry’s Under the Volcano? Will you dream of Goldman Sachs or Tatlin?

    1. I like this. And I wish I were strong enough to abandon all thoughts of the current milieu. You’re going right for what is noble and true, and on good days I’m thrilled with the potential of such a perspective. Alas, I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man.

      I believe my liver is diseased.

    2. I like the spirit of this, but I don’t agree that one shouldn’t care about Tyra Banks. Why shouldn’t one? One should care about what one wants to care about. Even Davenport wrote at least one essay on popular culture. Check out “Hobbitry”:

      I read an interesting essay on Tyra Banks a while back, in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I don’t really know who Tyra Banks is, but I remember finding the essay interesting… Intelligent things may be said on all subjects. Tyra Banks is as valid a subject as an oak tree.

      The problem, I think, is someone who knows nothing but Tyra Banks, or who can approach Tyra Banks only as the dominant culture dictates. But I find, too, dangerous people who know nothing but William Shakespeare.

      …What’s that chestnut about Milton? That he was the last person to read “everything” published in his time? (Or was it “everything of worth”? And who defined that worth?)

      And look what happened to him—he went blind!

      1. I think maybe one can use Tyra Banks in one’s work…”care about” might not be the correct sentiment. However, I would possibly push beyond getting lost in cultural detritus…how do you use it other than as a Rushdien prop? Doesn’t it seem like we lose the story in the accretion of named things? Or maybe that’s just one way of telling a story that I’d find less persuasive.

        However, I think I’m arguing about a focused attempt to grapple with greatness set against an attempt to earn one’s wage by writing stories for a market.

        And perhaps I know nothing about either.

        I think we have better lighting now than poor Milton.

        1. I generally agree with you—I’m the guy who refuses to watch TV, no matter how good my friends tell me certain programs are—I say thee nay!—but at the same time I bristle at the thought of staying confined to any one area. So when I read, I read broadly—Davenport but also Harry Potter. And when I watch movies, I watch them broadly. I could watch nothing but Great Films for the rest of my life—Lord knows there are enough of them…but what an empty life that would be, in its own way. Snob are no more inherently interesting than illiterates.

          (And what makes a Great Film? As Kristin Thompson says, “the Academy tends to ignore popular genre pictures, even though in retrospect we can see that such films have been the great strength of Hollywood. They’re often the ones we still watch today.”)


          Greatness can be found in many different places, and in many different varieties. People are clever and they make clever things all over. I have no doubt there is Great Television. (I just don’t like watching television.)

          I especially like seeing what people do when they’re stuck in places where no one expects greatness from them. So you find that Frank Miller, for instance, made some terrific art in the 1980s, using Batman. And he was able to do it in part because no one expected Batman comics to be any good. And he thought differently. And then you see that Larry Hama was pretty clever, too, even though he was stuck with the odious task of writing G.I. Joe comic. Imagine having to do that as your job! Like Val Lewton (who was told to make movies with titles like “I Walked with a Zombie”), he probably went home every evening and wept into his gin. But Val Lewton then went to work and made “I Walk with a Zombie,” an incredible film (and the best-ever Jane Eyre adaptation). And Larry Hama wrote some amazingly subversive and clever stories starring G.I. Joe and Cobra. I suppose this is something like the Auteur Theory.

          That all said, I weep when some of my friends tell me about the films they’ve been watching—basically whatever has been playing at the local cineplex, and that alone. And while there are occasional good films there, even great ones, what a shame to stick to just that one venue. What a shame to stick to any one venue! …I suppose my overall philosophy is that one must look everywhere, but one must always be a connoisseur.

          As for what people care about, I don’t think that really matters all that much. I could never care for the things that Jack Smith cared for, or that Joseph Cornell cared for, but there’s no denying they made great art from their respective concerns—art that I care for.

          I heard a story once that some literary critic was dating Thomas Pynchon’s sister, and he showed admirable restraint in not ever asking about her brother, because he didn’t want her to think that he was interested in her only to get to him. But one day they were out on a date and he couldn’t stand it any longer and so he asked, “What do you think your brother is doing right at this moment?” And she said, “Probably watching ‘The Brady Bunch.'” I don’t disbelieve it—and who am I to tell Thomas Pynchon to not watch Nick at Nite?

          “I think we have better lighting now than poor Milton.”

          Yeah, but people read so much off screens today, and those things are much harder on the eyes than candlelight on vellum.

          Which sparkles.

            1. Now I’m off to see this film:


              How can one watch that trailer and then not want to see it? How I ask you, how?

                1. The film’s use of music is really incredible. It’s basically just that one melody heard in the trailer, repeated over and over again, but done in different arrangements. (Plus a couple of other songs—but always returning to that one melody.)

                  Apparently there’s a Region 2 DVD available in the UK. By Eureka.



                  Meanwhile, don’t click here:

                  Or here:

                  Or here:

                    1. Adam,

                      You’ve deliberately broken one of our bylaws that state the HOUSE trailer cannot be uploaded into more than one thread.

                      I’m calling Mitch and Murrary.

          1. You, as always, sparkle yourself in these mini-essays demonstrating your democratic vistas. I am certainly not trying to say anyone should stay cloistered in their thinking or in their “consumption” of art and culture. We all need “down time”–one imagines Pynchon simply zoning to the Brady Bunch or trying to catch the “code” that speaks through it while I simply watched it and inserted myself into their lives–though I did this more with the Partridge Family (come on, get happy!).

            Why does one need to defend the lowbrow we all love to piss time away to? It is what it is. However, death will come to us quite soon and we are often simply distracted out of our central being into a whirling cacophony of nothingness…I beg to differ when you proclaim an “emptiness” in watching only great films. I’d say we’ve missed way too many of them.

            I’d also bet you’ve got a few favorite books you return to and others that you feel you learn from and so you study them (finding a focus for your thinking and your art in them)–the materials of your art come from your culture–the tools are found in past masters; you can alter them, twist them, turn them, tune them off-key–but you’ll always return to them.

            1. Hi Douglas,

              I do have great books that I return to—but they might surprise you! I adore ULYSSES and TO THE LIGHTHOUSE and BULLET PARK and BLOOD AND GUTS IN HIGH SCHOOL and WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS—but I also love my X-Men comic books. I wouldn’t want to ever give them up. And my love for them isn’t just down-time or kitsch: I think they’re great art. I believe that there is such a thing as pop art. And it can do things that “high art” cannot do.

              A better example: I love Peanuts. Well, in particular 1951–1968 or so. (You can have the 70s strips.) They’re great art, among the finest art produced last century. I’d rank Charles Schultz side-by-side with any other artist, living or dead. I’m not being ironic.

              That all said, I do basically agree with you. Life is short. One should appreciate the Good Stuff. I just think it’s hard to say where that Good Stuff is. Or, rather, where it isn’t. As soon as one says it isn’t over there, someone comes along and shows how it can be found there. It’s often a matter of perspective.

              I’m reminded here of an argument Roger Ebert made regarding why video games aren’t art. Of course I disagree with him in theory—I see no reason why video games can’t be art; anything can be art—but I agree with him in praxis: there don’t seem to be many video games yet that actually *are* art. (There are some, I think.)

              But Ebert made a point I’ll summarize from memory here, because I think it’s a very valid one: even if there are video games that are art, he’d rather watch movies, or read books, because those forms are much deeper than video games. Reading a great book is time “better spent” than playing a video game, even if it’s a great video game, because literature is more resonant, culturally. It’s deeper and more sophisticated.

              Well, people should do what they want to do, of course. And one doesn’t want to be a snob. But I do think there is something to Ebert’s argument, even if I don’t entirely agree with it. I know that when I play THE LEGEND OF ZELDA, I’m very impressed by Shigeru Miyamoto’s artistry—and I think he’s a tremendous artist—and I value that experience. But if forced to choose, I wouldn’t take THE LEGEND OF ZELDA over WITTGENSTEIN’S MISTRESS. WM is simply a more sophisticated artwork, I think. Even though ZELDA is truly great.

              Maybe that’s something of what you’re getting at?

              Of course, I’m happy not to have to choose.


              1. It’s obviously a kind of compound concept, so it may require unpacking, but where would you place “sophistication” in the hierarchy of artistic qualities?

                1. I have absolutely no idea. Do you mean how do I rank it in terms of how vital it is for an artwork to be good? Or what role I consider it to play in the aesthetic experience?

                  I tend to like art to be sophisticated, I guess, but that can mean a lot of things. I like Outsider Art, too. And too much sophistication can give you sophistry, ha ha ha.

                  I think that literature as a medium is more sophisticated than video games because there’s more of it—more literature. It has a longer history, has been around a lot longer. A work of literature is perceived against a much larger background, with many different traditions and histories. Which gives it a kind of richness that video games can only hope for at present.

                  I’m not trying to say that all lit is sophisticated, though, or that video games are necessarily naive. There are impressive ones right from the get-go. SPACE INVADERS is a phenomenally simple and powerful statement on existence, for instance. (The aliens get faster and faster and eventually you die.) I think DONKEY KONG is quite artistic—Mario’s design alone is a wonderfully elegant solution to the technical limitations of the time. SUPER MARIO BROS. is obviously a great masterpiece of pop/psychadelic art, and technically extremely innovative. ZELDA is one of my favorite artworks of the 1980s.

                  But I think that if you were to play video games for 1000 hours, you’d come away poorer than if you read for 1000 hours. Generally speaking.

                  1. I have to add though that I don’t really know anything about video games. I played them a lot in the 1980s when they seemed interesting, and then stopped in the 1990s when they started getting uninteresting (IMO). Nothing I’ve seen since then has made me think they’ve gotten any more interesting. As is often the case, the earlier works are often the more interesting ones.

                    A good friend of mine plays videos regularly, and he says they’re all garbage, with the exception of SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS. Which sounds interesting. And what people tell me about BRAID make it sound interesting. And I played some SUPER MARIO SOMETHING OR OTHER over the holiday, and it was OK—fun at least. Shigeru Miyamoto is the James Joyce of video games. No, I take that back—he’s the Cervantes off video games. He invents such marvels from such simple means. I consider him a great genius.

                    Mind you, I’m in no hurry to play any video games ever again. Whenever I get the urge, I breathe deeply and close my eyes and it eventually passes.

                    Or I go play Super Mario 2 at New Wave Coffee here in Chicago. They have a real Nintendo. It’s awesome.

                    1. okay, I’d like to promote contemplation here as a reader or as a viewer. So I’m not really talking about being an artist in a medium but rather allowing my “reception” to be contemplative and imaginative.

                      These seem to me to be the way I personally judge the creative act in front of me. And I think it’s what Adam is arguing for when he speaks with enthusiasm about Zelda’s creator and that experience of his creative act. He contemplates it and the ART in it resonates with the ART in him.

                      One makes these judgments all the time (I don’t think I’m arguing here about TASTE which seems to me far more cultural and less deeply felt–however, it often takes a new TASTE to discover the true ARTIST of a prior age or medium; to promote a deeper resonance)–The within responds to the without. Emerson–something that doesn’t give the ME back to ME is impoverishing.

                    2. So there’s nothing inherent in the video game form that prevents it from attaining the level of sophistication you look for in fiction. There could come along some video game maker who provokes experiences every bit as deep and meaningful as one gets from reading Joyce.

                      One might even say that because video games are inherently interactive and can involve multiple media, the experience one could have “playing” them (a verb the form would really have to shed once things get more serious) has the potential to really blow literature out of the water, sophistication wise. Once the form has a chance to mature.

                    3. If that ever happens, Shya, I might be lured into participating (better word than play?). Until then, I’ll have my memories of Space Invaders.

                    4. I think the receptivity you describe is important, Douglas, but it also sounds strangely passive as you’ve laid it out. The art is the mover in this equation, and if it’s not “doing” something to you, you’re impoverished. I’m not sure I buy it. A lot of the films Adam likes, for instance, will leave someone “cold” unless they’re willing to actively engage them, to meet the films half way. That is, the response to something overtly sophisticated can be similarly flat to what you’re describing as a response to, I don’t know, dumb stuff.

                      And I think there’s a kind of sophistication of seeing that real video game aficionados bring to game play that you would miss altogether–an understanding of what goes into creating the game. Or the film. Or whatever it is. Without whittling this down to a purely subjective call, I just want to point out that the reader/reviewer has a bit more to do with whether she has a meaningful experience that just being “receptive.”

                    5. Shya,

                      Well, I think only if video games become MORE like literature.

                      I think I’m arguing further, when using “contemplation” above, I’m talking about slowing down the world. It seems to me that MOVING PICTURES (a great album by the V-Roys!) dominate and overwhelm our minds…CREATE synapses and neural bridges that change us.

                      Maybe I’m delusional that I can choose my mind’s content–choose how my synapses fire and what neural bridges are formed by being VERY aware of the activity of thinking (PONDERING is ponderous, no?) versus being flooded with information.

                      I don’t think the products of our culture allow for depth. Even if there are “snobs” and “elites” like me (and you too) who want there to be that depth.

                    6. Shya, I didn’t see your 2nd post before I responded.

                      There is nothing passive in the intellection of reception in language and I’d say music (or Sound) if you are truly creative in your listening–I “listen” to language in my mind the way I listen to music.

                      I AM INDEED suggesting that video games and even movies (esp. as they get more like video games) create actual passivity–Mander (you know the 4 arguments against TV guy) quotes studies that show that the organs of our reception become passive when not moving–in other words–if a screen allows your eyes to take in the whole field then the eyes “zone out” and the brain also simply “zones out” and receives the images–it does not participate in the way the moving of the eye across the page CREATES participation in thinking.

                    7. Have you seen the size of TVs these days? And how close kids sit to them? Your eyes have to move around just to follow the action. I’m being serious. If it’s eye movement you’re after, watch a kid play a first person shooter on his flat screen TV.

                    8. Well that is a huge question these days? What is happening to the brain while immersed in the crack of the video world?

                      There is NO art there. And the ability to respond to anything in a contemplative manner will be eroded and your words on a page will be meaningless and boring as they do not “equate” to the synaptic speed of a video-brain.

                      I am indeed arguing against this as a real change in our physical brain–a physical change will create mental change and your art will go away as you know it. Do you care about this? Should we, Grandpa Simpson, care about how the kids are now totally unintelligible to us and us to them?

                      Who will be able ponder the greatness of Rodin? Who will hear Rilke’s angels (that was for you, adam, as a Gass reader)?

                    9. What, were you guys up all night discussing this?

                      No, I don’t think there’s anything inherent in video games that prevent them from reaching incredible sophistication and artistry. I’m sure eventually we’ll see incredibly subtle and complex and artistic video games. Although subtlety and sophistication are only two aspects of making art. And they can come from lots of places.

                      A lot of people who argue for the artistry of video games (there’s a whole debate about this, raging all around us this very minute) do stress the interactivity of the medium. Which makes sense to me, as it’s a big part of what distinguishes video games from other art (which traditionally involve less audience interaction—although they, too, can involve it, and often have).

                      The problem with games right now, I think (and as I hear from my friends who are really into these things) is that not too many games are exploring that interactivity (or any other aspect of game design) in interesting and meaningful ways.

                      Here’s a video game that Bill Viola made that I think is pretty great:


                      “Bill Viola :: The Tree of Knowledge [1997] … The viewer enters a long, narrow corridor that ends with a wall-size projection screen on which a sapling tree can be seen. As the viewer progresses towards the screen, the changes in the tree become increasingly dramatic. Every step along the corridor is directly related to a moment temporally fusing the diurnal, annual and biological life cycle of a tree that is symbolic rather representative of a particular species. At any point in their linear but reversible path, visitors can stop in their tracks and freeze-frame a moment in the tree’s development.”

                      What the above doesn’t mention is that when the audience member goes backwards, it regresses the tree (making it younger). But (spoiler alert!) after a certain point, the tree starts to die, and then you can’t make it younger; it only gets older and older. Eventually it withers and dies completely.

                      That’s a pretty phenomenal video game, I think. And a pretty simple one. You’re alone in this hallway with a tree. It’s pretty at first, and a fun environment to explore. Then you kill it and have to leave the corridor. A bit of a downer, but a pretty moving experience. And that was in 1997.

                      A friend of mine who’s into this kind of stuff tells me that SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS is the only contemporary home-console video game he’d hold up as great art. And not because the graphics are pretty and the music sensuous (although they appear to be), but because he says it challenges the whole concept of video game interactivity in novel ways, and disrupts the expectations players have of video games. I haven’t played it, but what he’s described to me sounds compelling. (I won’t spoil any of it here.)

                      Sadly, most video games seem to have gone in the direction of fancier graphics and expanded cinema scenes. Which is nice I suppose but doesn’t make me want to play video games. Such things also seem to diminish interactivity.

                      Along these lines, and along the lines of what Douglas wrote, I think of art as being more an activity the audience engages in, a la Cage. It’s a perception. One can have a religious experience anywhere, one can have an artistic experience anywhere. And with anything. But because we as people value artistic experiences, just as we value religious experiences, we make artifacts and places to facilitate having artistic experiences. Although sometimes those artifacts and places become obstacles to having artistic experiences. Just like churches and temples sometimes become obstacles to people having religious or spiritual experiences.

                      When I say ZELDA is a great artwork, I’m bringing an artistic sensibility to ZELDA. I don’t know if others would consider it art. But I think it can be art, certainly. And I think it’s pretty easy to consider ZELDA art, because it’s similar to video art, and it has music, and images, etc. And it’s designed.

                      Shigeru Miyamoto designed DONKEY KONG, the MARIO games, and ZELDA (among other games). He’s basically the font of all technical inspiration in early video game design. He invented
                      . sideways scrolling games
                      . open-ended gameplay
                      . RPGs (collecting items to unlock later parts of the game)
                      . memory backup

                      Among other things. And he really understood interactivity. For instance, when he released ZELDA in Japan, players were confused, because an open-ended game was something new. So the Nintendo execs worried that American audiences would hate the game.

                      Miyamoto observed that in the Japanese ZELDA, the player started with the sword. And his solution was to take away the sword: he changed it so it was the first item you had to acquire. And players were no longer confused. The game taught you what to do from the opening screen.

                      Miyamoto is rather Zen in his artistry.

                      When he was designing Mario (“The Plumber”) for DONKEY KONG, he had terrible constraints placed upon him: he could use so little memory for the character design, so few pixels. Mario’s graphic design is a solution to those limitations: he wears a cap so you can see his face. He has a mustache so you can see his nose. He has suspenders so you can see his arms. He has gloves so you can see his hands. And so on.

                      It’s extremely poetic.

                      As for whether video games are bad for our brains etc: I might agree, yes, in praxis, but not in theory. I do think a lot of today’s pop culture is pretty stupid: a lot of the video games and TV that I see, for instance. A lot of the movies.

                      But it also seems to have always been the case. Pop culture was amazingly stupid, for the most part, in the 1980s, and I think I did OK. A lot of my friends did OK. And I played tons of video games, and spent hours and hours reading comic books.

                      Rodin’s contemporaries, no doubt, made a lot of stupid statues. There’s always been lots of bad art, both high and low. And what we regard as high art wasn’t always for everyone. Who was looking at Rodin’s statues back then? If anything, it’s easier to see his work today, I bet. (I used to go a lot to the Rodin museum in Philly.)

                      And people are pretty ingenious all over. Low art, and pop art, can be just as clever as high art; I’m not kidding when I say that. I really do think that Larry Hama’s NTH MAN: THE ULTIMATE NINJA is a pretty great artwork. No, it’s not the same as ULYSSES. That’s the point. ULYSSES can’t do the things that NTH MAN does. But NTH MAN is rather remarkable in its own way. Larry Hama deserves to be regarded as a great writer, just as Shigeru Miyamoto deserves to be considered a great artist.

                      In some media, this is better understood, I think. Music is way ahead of us in this regard. No one seriously sits around arguing that pop music can’t be art just because there’s classical music. Or that jazz can’t be art because there’s country music. Those are nonsensical arguments.

                      And in the music realm, people can see that there are many different ways of making music, and that each little area has its innovators and artists. There are brilliant pop musicians, just as there are brilliant classical musicians. And classic jazz musicians.

                      Bo Diddley was a brilliant musician. You can see the innovations he brought about. And the music is simply phenomenal (well, in the 50s and 60s). That doesn’t diminish, say, George Crumb’s work. Crumb’s also a great musician. Some days you can listen to Crumb, some days you can listen to Diddley. Other days, you can listen to Miles Davis. They’re all different things; they’re all three great artists.

                      In literature this is perhaps less well understood. But someone can write great commercial fiction that is very clever and sophisticated, and someone else can write great comics that are clever and sophisticated. Just as someone can write great poetry that no one will ever read but which is still clever and sophisticated. (It would be a shame then if no one ever read it.)

                      Art, I think, is a product of tension, and constraint. Tradition is part of that constraint (returning to the original post). It’s a big one but it’s only one. It’s challenging to work in a tradition and say something new—but that still engages in that tradition—given all that’s been said. But it can be done.

                      It’s challenging to make an interesting video game given half a meg of memory (or whatever) to work with. Most 8-bit video games were totally uninteresting. But Miyamoto found ways around the technical limitations that were simply mind-blowing—and fun, and emotionally engaging, and beautiful. Play any video game before SUPER MARIO BROS, then play SMB. It’s revolutionary. Go to New Wave Coffee and see what people play there. They have a lot of games; people always reach for SMB1 or SMB3. (2’s my favorite, but I’ve always liked the ugly duckling.)

                      I’m not worried at all about people and their seemingly endless talent for innovation and creativity. I *am* worried about Americans in particular, because our infrastructure seems to be abominable: our transportation, our food, our schools, our use of the land. We live in really stupid ways, wasting resources in unsustainable ways. It won’t last.

                      And if history teaches any one thing, it’s that a poor infrastructure dooms you in the end. So that worries me far more than video games or TV do.

                      But, even if the American Adventure ends, others will continue on making fabulous stuff. Check out Thai art (and food)—really amazing. Their pop music totally sucks, but their photography is really good, and their theater and dance is astonishingly good. I don’t know too much about their literature (due to the language issues) but there seem to be some pretty wild authors. (Prabda Yoon seems rather clever.)


                      Their movies don’t get much funding, but there are some brilliant Thai filmmakers. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of the best filmmakers working right now, hands down. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has made some good films. Etc.

                      Go Thailand!

                    10. Well, that was fun, Adam…however, I think this part is wrong:

                      As for whether video games are bad for our brains etc: I might agree, yes, in praxis, but not in theory. I do think a lot of today’s pop culture is pretty stupid: a lot of the video games and TV that I see, for instance. A lot of the movies.

                      But it also seems to have always been the case. Pop culture was amazingly stupid, for the most part, in the 1980s, and I think I did OK. A lot of my friends did OK. And I played tons of video games, and spent hours and hours reading comic books.

                      Rodin’s contemporaries, no doubt, made a lot of stupid statues. There’s always been lots of bad art, both high and low. And what we regard as high art wasn’t always for everyone. Who was looking at Rodin’s statues back then? If anything, it’s easier to see his work today, I bet. (I used to go a lot to the Rodin museum in Philly.)

                      I think “in praxis” must mean that you agree that as a consequence of X then Y occurs. In theory, perhaps Z occurs.

                      But the argument that pop culture was always crap “and I turned out okay” doesn’t mean that the pop culture activities we have here and now IS THE SAME as what you had. In fact it’s not. It may have been junk and you loved it, but it isn’t the “change mechanics” we have wired into our daily living now–this isn’t pop culture anymore–it’s our daily bread.

                      And this really has nothing to do with naming something ART.

                    11. Hi Douglas,

                      “I think ‘in praxis’ must mean that you agree that as a consequence of X then Y occurs. In theory, perhaps Z occurs.”

                      Sure, that’s always possible. Predicting the future is very hard, if not impossible. I’d hate to have to do it.

                      By “in praxis” I simply meant “in practice.” Meaning, I’m inclined to agree with you in theory, but I also suspect that, in reality, 25 years from now, the kids of today won’t turn out to be drooling idiots. I imagine they’ll like Rodin, and appreciate Rilke—some of them. Although who really knows? Neither you nor me.

                      It’s a cliché by now that every generation laments the following one as being not up to the task of inheriting culture. That it’s clichéd doesn’t mean it isn’t true—but somehow culture keeps getting inherited. Someday the kids of today will be complaining about the kids of tomorrow… (So why will they have them?)

                      So the challenge, I think, is on us, to be good teachers, and to pass on what we think matters. In my case, that includes Rodin and Rilke, but it also includes ZELDA and X-Men comic books. (But the challenge is to teach people how to see what’s good about those things—both the high art and the pop.)

                      As for how life today is different than it was way back then, in the distant 1980s—surely it is. But the difference between 2010 and 1985 is not larger than the difference between 1985 and 1885. Somehow we still liked Rodin and Rilke in 1985. I suspect we’ll still like them in 2085.

                      Some of us.


                      P.S. Actually, when I was a kid and went to the Philly Rodin Museum, all I really did was giggle about his “Naked Balzac.”

                    12. I did understand your meaning…however I will desist from trying to be too precious in the future.

                      Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear…I don’t think these are differences in understanding culture or art…and I don’t think I’m saying a curmudgeonly “kids these days…” as they did in cuneiform in ancient Egypt; I’m saying that the standard of, in the modern age, being distracted by pop crap has now been co-opted by the, for lack of a better term or understanding, the “biological” alterations of brain mechanisms. These are DIFFERENT questions than such as those your referring too. And, Adam, your quick intelligence cannot be the litmus test to the outcomes of the immersion in pop culture–you are not everyone and your ability to MAKE MEANING that resonates in language and depth of perception is not um…a common feature of those distracted by life’s “entertainments”.

                      Further, again, I think you underestimate the change even from 1985 to the present and I might even go as far as to claim that the substantive change in our daily living is as different in the last 25 years than the difference from say the invention of television till 1985 (which is hardly too many more years come to think of it).

                      What is it they say about computing power and the exponential change every 18 months?

                  2. “I’m saying that the standard of, in the modern age, being distracted by pop crap has now been co-opted by the, for lack of a better term or understanding, the ‘biological’ alterations of brain mechanisms.”

                    I suppose that’s quite possible. I do sometimes wonder what young people make of contemporary culture. I don’t really know many young people at the moment. I do have a cousin, though, who’s fifteen or so, and she seems pretty bright. She gives me hope. And I have another cousin who’s seventeen, I think, and she seems mostly bored with pop culture. That’s a good sign.

                    Another one of my cousins, who’s 23 or so, wants to go into publishing! And to become a writer and an editor. I think that’s great; she and I discuss literature all the time. When she was younger she didn’t seem interested in literature at all; she became interested in it in college.

                    “I think you underestimate the change even from 1985 to the present and I might even go as far as to claim that the substantive change in our daily living is as different in the last 25 years than the difference from say the invention of television till 1985 (which is hardly too many more years come to think of it).”

                    That, too, is very possible. The good news, though, is that it won’t last!

                    A good friend of mine, who teaches environmental science to young kids, has a little thought experiment he likes to conduct with them. He says, “Imagine you go outside to your car and there’s no gas in it. What would you do?”

                    They reply, “I’d go to the gas station.”

                    He replies, “OK, there’s no gas there, either.”

                    They reply, “I’d call my friend, who has a car.”

                    He replies, “OK, but her car doesn’t have any gas, either. And your cell phone isn’t working.”

                    They usually don’t have a reply at that point. So my friend says, “That is what the word ‘unsustainable’ means.”

                    It’s possible of course that the US (or someone else) will eventually figure out how to power our way of life—and include the rest of the world in it—after we run out of petroleum, and even manage to do so without destroying what’s left of the environment. I’m not holding my breath, though. I think things are going to start slowing down sooner or later. But I guess we’ll see.

                    I heard a great report on the news the other night, on Marketplace, where a Detroit auto spokesman was talking about $8 gasoline in the US, and soon (and what they’re doing to prepare for it). This wasn’t an environmentalist. A spokesman for the Detroit auto industry.

                    It’s going to be fun! If history teaches anything, it’s that things change. To quote SOUTHLAND TALES, “The future is going to be more futuristic than scientists predicted.”

                    My hope is that people start walking more. Walking is great. It slows you down, and gives you time to think. I’ll be posting a whole series on walking in another month or so, co-written with some of my walking artist friends.



                    You’re right that making meaning is key. David Bordwell wrote a very good book on that topic:


                    It’s largely about how limited critical movements are by their historical and cultural circumstances—how they’re themselves historical narratives. Highest possible recommendation.

                    1. Man, you took us in a whole new direction!

                      I’m struggling against two thing primarily here and you kind of touched on them, or touched them off in me.

                      1. This is MY now and tomorrow is MY future.
                      2. I make meaning out of this “stuff” in a particular way based on MY “nature/nurture”.

                      Okay, 1: well there is an amassing of data happening wherein, via quantum mechanics, ALL IS NOW and HAS BEEN and WILL BE ad infinitum. Did you read The Sirens of Titan or Slaughterhouse 5? In both Vonnegut actually uses this quantum idea–time might be viewed something like a tube wherein all events ARE somewhat frozen in their place in that tube and that given the right “unhinging” of your Enlightenment mind you (whoever YOU are) might be able to visit any time period you want as they are all out there and never-changing. This then, and this is the really hard part, removes the idea of free will–what is and has ever been and what shall be ARE FIXED in this tube of time. MY future is ALREADY THERE.

                      Now applying that to all my “choices” now–save the planet, eat organic, read about just war theory, etc.–these will no longer be choices and the world will already be saved changed destroyed and so I’m just doing what is my “fixed” part in this strange reckoning of time.

                      Also, brain science now sees our “choices” as the result of a kind of “randomness” generator in our minds–shuffling neurons fire at random–and when the “choice” is made it’s simply where the wheel stops. Rock paper scissors.

                      And #2: Then we we try to say why we made a choice we CREATE coherent reasons that are all made up to justify that random choice–so, you are just like anyone else in trying to know why you made the choice–you don’t know, but you can make up an okay story about it.

                      Baffling to say the least.

                      It seems as if we are in the “evolving” process of trying to “make meaning” out of random Darwinian natural choices. That seems a NEW FORCE–making meaning out of the process of natural selection that’s working on us.

                      You, me, the rest here at Big Other really like to make meaning and in a particular way. And maybe the way we are telling our stories or trying to justify our strange choices IS affecting that next choice.

                      And in fact, that might well be the case. When we remember apparently we are always “reconstructing” the memory and changing it every time we remember–and thus moving farther away from an “objective” truth (in our telling); AND we can also be made to “remember” and incorporate into our past, our personal histories, events that have never happened to us–it appears this easily achieved in about a 1/4 of us.

                      Memories are unstable “bridges” between neurons and these can be altered.

                      Now, I don’t know what to make of all this, but it is hard to imagine what “I” am doing anymore. Who in fact am I and what am I becoming and why take on such odd and very skewed meanings now…I have been reading so much enlightenment philosophy and so much modern philosophy trying to get to some place where I know how I can help the world to become better, nicer, less like we are now–less war, less hate, less fear, less “cog in the machine”.

                      But these choices are called into question in the cold hard light of the science of organisms.

                      Richard Dawkins says somewhere that he believes the above BUT wants us not to believe it in our daily actions…he doesn’t want the Darwinian applied to his moral choices.

                      And on and on…don’t get me started on string theory…or how much Burton’s Alice sucked.

                    2. Hi Douglas,

                      I’m afraid I don’t know much about modern physics or neuroscience. I studied them a while back (I was originally a science/math major in college), but confess I lost interest pretty quickly (and switched to English). (There were more girls in the English classes.)

                      But I can see what you mean, at least as it applies to Burton: I knew before it came out that his ALICE would suck.

  8. of course, working from within that disease is another way to internalize your process and not need to share it. Why share your work with the undeserving? You need your one reader to sustain you–are you Hawthorne or Melville?

    1. Who are the undeserving in this equation? The writers who can actually read and respond to my work? I can sympathize with this line of thinking only to a point–it comes dangerously close to relying on received, “safe” ideas of canonical value and a kind of ersatz metaphysic that substitutes “influence” for eternal life. Yes, I could shutter myself in my room and speak to the dead. I could likely produce some high caliber fiction while so doing. But for whom? And at what cost?

      1. I was simply responding to the black fist in your heart from the previous post.

        One supposes you believe in an audience…ideal or otherwise and it doesn’t matter if it’s democratic or narrow or mean or racist etc…(Celine anyone)…the writing, the passion, the art, the craft, the story matter–possibly not Shya though.

        1. One could argue there is no Shya b/c we are all one, and as such we’re all working toward the same goal: _______ through art.

          One thing I always find curious in discussions like these that reference the MFA line… can anyone legitimately argue that the great writers of the past, just like the great jazz musicians, let’s say, who didn’t go university to get their training, are any less monumental than the great writers of today? Seriously. Many paths, one destination.

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