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Under The Influence

Literary influences

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

‘I prefer the word theft’ was the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig’s neat rejoinder when asked about his influences, and ever since I heard him say this I have felt reluctant to own up to my influences. In fact, it is one of those questions I dread being asked during question time after a reading, or during an interview: who are your influences? It isn’t that I don’t believe in influence — writers are influenced by other writers and this can be an important part of a writer finding his or her own voice. Even MacCaig admitted, when pressed, that ‘a discerning reader’ would find the influence of Wallace Stevens in his work. Neither is it that I just don’t know which writers have influenced me, because I think I do have some idea, but I always feel loath to name them, partly because it can sound like boasting. I’ve read too many self-reflective essays by creative-writing students in which they blithely claim to be influenced by the literary good and the great – Angela Carter and Raymond Carver are favourites – to wish to make such claims myself, inadvertently comparing my own work to that of much more accomplished and recognized writers in the process. But my reluctance also stems from the fact that influence has always been a complex, difficult issue for me. It is easy to reel off a few names of writers I have read and admired and maybe even, as a younger writer, tried to imitate, but this doesn’t tell the whole story, because at different periods of development a writer can come under many different sorts of influence, not all of them necessarily good, even if the source writer is wonderful. Raymond Carver is a case in point: I have read so many pale imitations by students that it has almost spoiled my appreciation of his own short stories, each one a little masterclass in focus and economy in itself.

As a young boy growing up in a working-class household – my father was a miner, my mother worked as a cook and a cleaner – my idea of literature was, I am sure, strongly defined by some of the books in the house and which I read: Edgar Allan Poe, Shelley, Byron, Upton Sinclair, Robert Tressell, John Steinbeck and others, mostly books with a socialist political colour. Later, as a beginning writer, I certainly came under the spell of some great writers, and even learnt something from trying to write my own pastiches. Hemingway was straightforward enough. I feel embarrassed but amused now to remember writing all those laconic little short sentences bristling with attitude, and it is important to be able to recognize and deliberately move away from such parodic forms of influence. With Chekhov of course parody didn’t work. I realised his stories were great stories, but they were impossible to imitate. They appeared to have no discernible style, no linguistic quirks or flourishes to imitate. Later, I realized that one of the things which makes them great is inimitable: his insight into human motivation and relationships, which is something you have to acquire the hard way. Nevertheless, reading Chekhov made me see what a great thing a short story could be at its best and so it made me long to write my own short stories; I suppose that could be considered a form of influence but not one I would dare to claim when asked about my influences.

Another kind of influence which is too broad to be likened to theft is that of orientation, how we approach the world through our writing and the general drive we put into it. Like a lot of poets of my generation in Scotland, I came under the influences of Norman MacCaig and Edwin Morgan, not that I tried to write like either, but in a more general way: from MacCaig I took the importance of simplicity and lucidity, from Morgan it was more to do with versatility – his work demonstrates that anything can be addressed in poetry and that poetry can take all sorts of forms – so in an important way I think those two drives helped to shape my own work.

I believe the kind of influence MacCaig was referring to when he called it ‘theft’ is something all writers benefit from: learning things about the nuts and bolts of writing from reading other writers and attempting to use these skills in their own work. There are so many writers I feel I have learnt from in this way that it is quite difficult to single out particular instances, but in terms of my short-story writing I think I probably learnt most from someone from a very different background and culture than mine: Bernard Malamud, whom I read as I was beginning to write short stories myself and trying to find my own voice within the form. One thing he taught me was how to present a subjective viewpoint within an ostensibly neutral third-person narrative. I can see this influence in some of my stories quite clearly, though I probably wasn’t conscious of it at the time. One story, ‘A Good Night’s Sleep’, begins ‘Just as he was maybe beginning to fall asleep at last, George Lockhart, an insomniac, thought he heard something bumping against his door’. The character’s point of view, his frustration at not being able to get to sleep, is present in the texture of the narrative, and that is something I didn’t know how to do before reading Malamud.

There are examples which are more clearly like ‘theft’. One of his stories ‘My Son the Murderer’ describes a fractious relationship between a father and son between whom communication has broken down. Malamud gives both characters the status of narrator, so that we have a passage from the son’s point of view in which the son complains that the father spies on him and listens at his door, then we have a passage from the father in which he tells us that he doesn’t know where his son goes at night or what he does, etc. Malamud alternates the passages from each point of view and I had never seen this technique used before. I was able to take this structural framework and narrative approach of presenting different, conflicting points of view and narrations in my own work, and I think seeing how Malamud had managed this helped me a great deal.

I wasn’t the only writer living in Scotland who learnt from this story. I reviewed a volume of the annual Scottish Short Stories series (HarperCollins) in which there appeared a story ‘Father and Son’ by Bernard MacLaverty in which he mimicked the Malamud story’s structural dynamic exactly, with the father and son having alternate first-person narratives. In both stories the father and son aren’t speaking to each other and the father suspects that the son has a gun. Though I pointed out the similarity in the review, I also saw that what MacLaverty did was to take the same scenario and formal approach as Malamud’s and apply it to a very different context – that of Northern Ireland and the Troubles – and that this invested it with a new kind of resonance. I did meet MacLaverty some time later and we spoke about Malamud and he mentioned that a reviewer had caught him out with ‘Father and Son’, so I told him that it was me and he didn’t mind in the least.

The question of to what extent influence is conscious or unconscious is one which has exercised me quite a lot. Here I am talking about being influenced by Malamud, but maybe I have been influenced on a more subconscious level by my first forays into reading with the tales of Edgar Allan Poe — or reading The Beano as a boy! I don’t actually see such an influence in the work itself, but there may be other habits and mannerisms of other writers which I have subconsciously absorbed but remain unaware of. And how, by being influenced by another writer, can one find one’s own voice and approach to writing?

The best description of how this paradoxical process works I have come across is by Seamus Heaney in his essay ‘Feeling Into Words’: ‘In practice, you hear it coming from somebody else, you hear something in another writer’s sounds that flows in through your ear and enters the echo-chamber of your head and delights your whole nervous system […] This other writer, in fact, has spoken something essential to you, something you recognize instinctively as a true sounding of aspects of yourself and your experience. And your first steps as a writer will be to imitate, consciously or unconsciously, those sounds that flowed in, that in-fluence.’

So, in absorbing that ‘in-fluence’ and assimilating it in ways that fit with our whole sensibility and outlook, we take the first step towards finding our own voice.

Brian McCabe was born in a small mining community near Edinburgh. He studied Philosophy and English Literature at Edinburgh University and currently teaches at Lancaster University on the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing. His most recent book of poems is Zero.

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