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We Know Best What’s Nearest (Living Art Backwards)

A quick follow-up to Tim’s post here, which was itself in response to Jackie Wang’s post here. Wang had asked:

Do you feel a duty to read and acknowledge your literary, theoretical, and musical foremothers?

I’d argue that most people have no idea who their artistic forebears are. For example: students tell me all the time that David Foster Wallace is their favorite novelist. And when I see their work, they’re indeed writing very DFW-influenced stuff. But they rarely know anything about DFW’s own inspirations, or the lineage(s) he inhabits.

This is only natural; we all of us live artistic lineages backward. (I’m no exception; my initial influences were G.I. Joe and X-Men comics.) And this is why I’ve been saying for a little while now (polemically, mind you) that Ulysses is no longer all that influential a novel: not many people sit down and actually read it, let alone get direct inspiration from it. (“I discovered stream of consciousness by reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and now I use it in my work.”)

Rather, people read more contemporary authors, like DFW and DeLillo and Franzen and Pynchon (to name authors of a particular type), and they imitate them. And so they get a lot of Joycean influences, but only indirectly, and mainly through those authors. (E.g., they see DFW or Pynchon shifting narrative registers, but they don’t see how Joyce did a lot to pioneer that trope in Ulysses.)

This is always happening. People imitate Lydia Davis without reading the Symbolists. People (used to?) imitate Vonnegut without reading Céline. And so on.

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

29 thoughts on “We Know Best What’s Nearest (Living Art Backwards)

  1. I wonder how this works with people’s styles of blogging and commenting on blogs, etc…? Can you trace the lineage of someone’s posting style?

    I think most stylistic markers are absorbed without any deliberate quality. A writer may peg XXX as precursor and stylistic be world’s apart–more influenced by the masses of information that moves in and out each day.

    1. That’s a great question, Davis, and I’d love to hear others respond to it. (It deserves its own post!)

      I consider myself heavily influenced, blog-wise, by Andrew Rilstone:
      …even though I’ve read only, like, five of his posts. But he was one of the first bloggers I encountered (sometime in the mid 2000s) who was doing in-depth critical analysis of movies and comic books, and who made me go, “Oh, of course you can do that!”

      Same thing with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. I’ve not read much of their blog:
      …but I’ve read a lot of their books, and they’re real influences.

      The blog I’ve probably read the most, and for the longest time, is Eschaton, by Atrios (Duncan Black):
      I’ve been reading him somewhat regularly since the early 2000s. I don’t think I write anything like the guy, but I’ve found his political thinking very influential.

    1. Well, those folks back then probably didn’t read the classics, either—too busy reading penny dreadfuls and Boys’ Adventure novels, or whatever they had at the time.

      And porn. The secret history of art is the history of porn.

      Someone should make a collection of the pop art that famous artists loved. E.g., “T.S. Eliot loved Sherlock Holmes novels.” So we can see the popular influences, rather than just the high, literary ones. …Has someone already done this? It seems like it might already exist. It should exist!

        1. I know that I certainly haven’t! There are just too many episodes of The Gummi Bears to watch (and then to rewatch…).

          Ludwig Wittgenstein*: “I’ve never read Aristotle. What can he tell us, anyway? The answers are in Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Saint Matthew.”

          (*by way of Terry Eagleton)

            1. You got like seven comments to my one. Dead silence on the queer content. Same thing happened w/ Jackie’s post. I think people not versed in feminist and queer theory maybe dont feel qualified to respond to shit or something.

    1. Hi Stephen,

      I won’t claim that she’s been directly influenced (not the way Vonnegut was by Celine), and I’ve never seen her claim any influence (not that I’ve read any interviews with her, either). But I just read Almost No Memory, and I saw a lot of connections. Although I also read it after reading a ton of Baudelaire, so maybe I’m tripping.

      Here are those connections:
      . anti-realism, especially in the sense of “art for art’s sake” (with strong idiosyncrasy presented as a positive aspect of the work);
      . a use of poetical prose form (she’s more flash fiction than prose poetry, perhaps, but she’s also one of those cases where I think that distinction breaks down);
      . everyday banal subjects are often invested with seemingly denser, signification (one of my students said that each Davis story seemed to her like a metaphor for something she couldn’t figure out)–Davis is more post-structuralist, of course, but she’s still putting a lot of pressure on the words as artificial signifiers, rather than as transparent representations;
      . along those lines, there’s a lot of word play, which often structures the piece;
      . there’s also a strong sense of pessimism (colored perhaps by post-Symbolist absurdity).

      What she’s missing, I think, is the Romantic nature of traditional Symbolist poetry. Davis’s is a more contemporary, minimalist, flatter, more post-structuralist version, perhaps.

      Again, without knowing her particular lineage, I do think there’s a defensible connection. But, at the same time, and at the risk of overstating things, I tend to see a Symbolist influence everywhere.

      (Diane Williams would probably be a clearer, better example.)


      1. Adam,

        Thank you so much for explaining this. I’ve tried Davis’s stories, from collection to collection, and have found a simple idea at work, done repetitively to the point of absurdity. Probably the perfect writer for these interconnected times, I suppose. But I’m old-fashioned and expect from poetry an intensity of feeling that Mallarme and Baudelaire gives us.

        “What she’s missing, I think, is the Romantic nature of traditional Symbolist poetry. Davis’s is a more contemporary, minimalist, flatter, more post-structuralist version, perhaps.”

        That echoes my thoughts exactly when reading her, and finely put. Her “Swann’s Way” is like this, has taken the Mallarme out of Proust and has given us a more quotable one, a Proust I could do without. But I think you’ve just persuaded me to be a little bit more patient, and to read her again. Greatly appreciated.

        Diane Williams. Could you point out the way? I’m not familiar with her. Or any others with the Symbolist influence, ones that might even be here in America.


        1. Adam,

          In the spirit of transparency, I love you, but, also in the spirit of transparency, I’m getting a little peeved about all these questions of influence. Everything is connected, this has been said by many luminaries from Buddha to Inspector Clouseau.

          Whether or not people have read or seen or experienced art by other people is not a signpost to judging their work. And it doesn’t matter if someone did it first – someone had sex first too, does that mean no one should have any? I know you didn’t say any of this (I did), but I may have detected in your tone some whiff of denigration (I could be wrong, my detectors are being serviced as we speak).

          I might disagree (I’m sure we can speak constructively when, also in the spirit of transparency! you come to NYC -every one is invited by the way, even DeadGod) with the thing about pessimism being inherited from reading, re Davis… What about experience? Reading about the evils of the world is much different than experiencing them, in my experience.



          1. Does DeadGod ever come to Big Other!!?? I think I kind-of love DeadGod.

            I will be in NYC this weekend and will probably go to Paula Bomer and Mike Young’s book release party/reading. Will you be there?

          2. No, no whiffs of denigration intended at all, Greg. I don’t see being influenced as pejorative in any way whatsoever—it’s a neutral thing in my book. It’s what one does with the influence that matters—although I probably have no interest in evaluating the work even then, or at least not in the realm of this current discussion. See, for instance, this set of responses to Tim for more along that line:


            I know I write a lot about this subject, but that’s because I’m trying to explore an alternative approach to viewing literary (and arts) history. In brief: I grew up with the “movement” or “revolution” model: this movement led to this movement led to this movement. E.g., Romanticism > Modernism > Postmodernism. And I find that literary/arts history very unsatisfying these days. And so I’m attempting to use ideas from Shklovsky, Jakobson, and the French Annales School to discover an alternative. If I write endlessly about this topic, I apologize, but it’s because I’m sincerely trying to work my way though this challenge/set of questions.

            In the interest of transparency, though, I’m probably attracted to this line of thinking because I tend to like perverse and contrary arguments. And so the more I see experimental writing insisting on its disassociation with the past (a break with history), the more I find myself wanting to insist upon continuity. Indeed, recently it seems to me that the very insistence on break and disruption is a very Modernist idea (“Make it new!”), which is by now a fairly old tradition. And I’m even interested in showing how the “Make it new” of Modernism was not even unique to Modernism, but rather a part of a longer tradition that extends back to at least the 1860s. (Yes, Baudelaire again. Everything goes back to Baudelaire! He was the father of us all. But he, too, stole a lot of his ideas from elsewhere…) (Everything actually goes back to the French proto-Communists of the 1820s!) (I’m being only half-serious right here, if even that…)

            But this has nothing to do with whether I think “Make it new!” is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s both, and neither. Value depends on a particular context. I’m not trying to criticize any artist or artwork. Rather, I’m trying to criticize a particular kind of criticism and history writing.

            Along which lines, I appreciate any and all feedback. (Eventually I hope to get this all organized in a single coherent critical volume, at which point my argument should be less repetitive/redundant.)

            Well, we can continue this discussion, perhaps, in NYC next week. (If we’re not too busy watching movies!)

            Cheers, Adam

        2. …I should add, Stephen, that I’m not really a fan of Lydia Davis’s work. (Sorry, Greg.) I don’t dislike it, but I am also not enthusiastic about it, which is to say that it doesn’t do much for me; it passes right through me. (I’m trying to be descriptive here, and as non-evaluative as possible.)

          I taught some of her writing recently because it’s popular and I think an important part of the current literary landscape (she looms large), and I wanted my students to be aware of her. (The class’s objective was to study contemporary practices in art and writing.) Some of the students liked her, and some didn’t.

          (Greg, if you want to recommend your favorite work of hers to me, I’ll check it out.)

    1. I know it’s wrong of me, but I still love that show. I bought the first few seasons on DVD, the only time I’ve ever bought a TV show on video. (I didn’t even buy the G.I. Joe DVDs, which was a much bigger part of my childhood!) And if they release the later episodes, I will no doubt buy them, too. What can I say in my defense? I can say nothing in my defense.

  2. OK, I finally wrote a response over at Montevidayo to the interesting discussion you all have been having here on Big Other about literary history and originality. I don’t add really a whole lot that hasn’t been said already, but a few points. Basically I like the idea of the discussion, with all of its twists and turns, as a replacement of official literary history.


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