Author’s influence weighs heavily on my mind as I read. I remember being transported the first time I read Shane Jones’s Light Boxes; it was like no other book I had ever seen before and it was perfect to me. Then I read Salvador Plascencia’s The People of Paper—published three years earlier—and, although I enjoyed both, I felt a little less mystified.
The same crestfallenness was felt when I read Miranda July, then discovered Tao Lin, and Tao Lin before Joy Williams; Donald Ray Pollack and then William Kittredge; Amelia Gray’s AM/PM before James Tate’s The Oblivion Ha-ha. The list goes on.
The concept of authorial influence—and to a further extent, worrying about it—even isn’t very fresh. I can’t help but worry that John Barth said everything I’m saying already in The Friday Book’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” except that he sort of calls for more borrowing rather than less. It definitely worked for Barth in the 60’s, but who before J. B. was really working in that literary vein? Borges and some obtuse Frenchmen?
T. S. Eliot’s maxim “good writers borrow, great writers steal” also comes to mind. There’s this nettling thought that writers really are following Eliot’s advice and they’re outright taking from others—note the case of disgraced poet/ plagiarist Christian Ward or the uneasy feeling of reading Harry Potter after Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (written a solid twenty-nine years earlier). However, Eliot’s work seems to lay down clear trails to its source material—at least that’s the case for the well-read literary scholar.
Maybe this is the problem: my anxiety lies in being well-read. As a graduate student, I had a work study as an editorial intern for my University literary magazine. My mentoring professor told me that it would do wonders for my writing. “After you read your twelfth blow-job poem submission, you’ll start to rethink your own writing,” he said. And that’s definitely true, but the fear that there’s nothing new under the sun starts to curtail my reading and writing rather than freeing it.
By now I’m sure you’ve already heard about Kyle Minor’s newest story collection, Praying Drunk, and it’s rightly so. Minor is a “writer’s writer.” His stories are technically skilled, filled with pathos, and rife with incisive social criticism. But in a market of literary short fiction how often can an author write about childhood unfulfillment or the disconnect of lovers and seem fresh?
The issue is further compacted by Minor’s deployment of literary bells and whistles throughout his collection. Several stories hinge on the sort of metafictional authorial intrusion that has already been claimed by John Barth and the like, and one of Minor’s stories uses a science fictional approach to underscore the humanity of parenthood in the face of frightening technology. In “The Truth and All Its Ugly” a father comes to terms with his son’s suicide by activating a robotic version of him from a younger time. “You’re entitled to it,” says the robot salesman reminding the father that the robot that he purchased is faulty, “and we’ll give it to you if you want, but what you need to know is sometimes what you want isn’t the same as the thing we can give you” (41 – 2). The story is deeply affecting, but the cynical reader will pick up notes of George Saunders (or Kurt Vonnegut before him).
Stories written entirely in dialogue, as Q & As, collages as narrative, authorial intrusion, the use of second person—all are present in Praying Drunk and all are intriguing. Perhaps the most engaging aspect of Praying Drunk is how Kyle Minor addresses religion. Minor admits to being a preacher for “less than two years” in a story that is only revealed to be nonfiction in the last seven pages of the story (21). Minor goes on to say “…there’s no such thing as miracles. God doesn’t probably answer our prayers” later in the essay disguised as a story (23), and his troubled viewpoints on religion are present throughout a majority of the collection. It’s as if by questioning authorship through metafictional conceits he’s questioning holy authority. In the first story of the collection, Kyle Minor writes
At the funeral, somebody said what always gets said, which is all things work together for good to them that love God, for them that are called according to his righteousness. And I wondered … what did that say about a God with agency sufficient to create everything and set it into motion, [sic] and apathy enough to let it proceed as an atrocity parade?
Or what does it say about me, the god of this telling, that I have to take [the story] to these dark places? (8)
By commenting on the very way Minor is telling his story, he is interrogating the nature of a just God in deeply lasting ways. But that voice—the cynical reader—rises within me and asks, hasn’t even questioning holy authority been overdone?
I know realistically that no literature is created in a void; that the succession and reaction to ideas is what makes much literature feel exciting and worth reading, and yet I still can’t help but feel a little cheated—as if the author is trying to sneak something by me, or as if it was done so much better by someone else twenty years before. This sounds like cynicism, and maybe it is. Maybe I’ve read too much and I need to tap the brakes on reviewing books, but then I realize that I, myself, am starting to paraphrase Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain.” Still, I am left wondering how to handle any of this.