I think influence is a complicated thing. I am influenced by a kind of writing because I am drawn to it, open to it. I am drawn to it because there is already an affinity between my own sensibility and sense of formal structure and those of the author I am reading or studying. I would not be influenced by a writer alien to me. I really see an ongoing process that starts in earliest childhood. The very first picture books and nursery rhymes have their effect, as do songs and the lyrics of songs. My sensibility as a child is affected by these and then my changing sensibility and sense of structure show in my writings, even the stories written as assignments in grade school. And of course the influences of interactions with family and friends and teachers continue to have their effect.
I certainly read Kafka very closely and constantly for a few years—though I was reading many others at the same time, of course, like Hawthorne, Melville, Evelyn Waugh, R.L. Stevenson, Malamud, Dickens, Mary McCarthy, Poe, Emily Dickinson, James, and slews of mysteries. Something drew me to Kafka’s work, and in turn I’m sure I absorbed something of his sensibility and style. Clearly something drew me to Kafka more than to James, for instance—the spareness, the humility (whether assumed or real, or a combination), the bizarre imagination. He was interested in the possibility of two hands suddenly alien to each other; James’s interests lay elsewhere. For years I found James hard to read; I found that his prose left me no breathing room. Now I admire him. But the affinity still is not there.
RIP Nadine Gordimer, who died last July. Here’s her Paris Review interview, from 1983:
What role do you feel politics and the constant conflict it evokes in South Africa have played in your development as a writer?
Well, it has turned out to have played a very important role. I would have been a writer anyway; I was writing before politics impinged itself upon my consciousness. In my writing, politics comes through in a didactic fashion very rarely. The kind of conversations and polemical arguments you get in Burger’s Daughter, and in some of my other books—these really play a very minor part. For various reasons to do with the story, they had to be there. But the real influence of politics on my writing is the influence of politics on people. Their lives, and I believe their very personalities, are changed by the extreme political circumstances one lives under in South Africa. I am dealing with people; here are people who are shaped and changed by politics. In that way my material is profoundly influenced by politics.
So how did your life change after The Elementary Particles?
The biggest consequence of The Elementary Particles, apart from the money and not having to work, is that I have become known internationally. I’ve stopped being a tourist, for example, because my book tours have satisfied any desire I might have to travel. And as a result there are countries I have visited that you wouldn’t ordinarily go to, like Germany.
The New York Review of Books turns 50 years old this year. Emily Stokes had lunch with Bob Silvers to talk about it:
As an editor working at a literary magazine, I find Silvers’ work ethic inspiring, if hard to mimic; he is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours; many have stories of receiving clippings and queries from “Bob” in the middle of the night or as they sit down to Christmas lunch.
Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by “reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted”, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles. “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ” He dips a sprout into his soup, absent-mindedly.
On 4 June, Eimear McBride won the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction for A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, beating Donna Tartt, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Jhumpa Lahiri to her second major prize.
And yet: she finished the book in 2004, and didn’t find a publisher for it until 2013. In a recent interview with The White Review, she is pretty damning about mainstream publishing:
I hate a moral and I’m not much keener on an inspirational tale of survival against the odds. I find the current vogue for heavyweight middlebrow fairly depressing too, but suspect this has more to do with what publishers are willing to publish than what writers are offering. Girl was recently turned down by a large publishing house in the US because they feared ‘…that broad-mindedness is a thing of the past and that McBride’s brilliant and moving novel will suffer in the marketplace as a result’.
I can’t count how many responses I’ve had in that vein and I don’t think they’re just a problem for me personally. Responses like that are a problem for everyone interested in serious writing. I will be eternally grateful to Galley Beggar for the risk they took in publishing Girl and for possessing the imagination to see beyond the narrow perimeters marketing departments offer to their giant international counterparts. That they have generated so much interest on a marketing budget of almost nothing is testament to their hard work but also to the fact that there is an audience out there for this kind of writing and while Girl isn’t going to make millionaires of any of us, it has a place and a value too. Publishing shouldn’t be about seeking out next year’s rip-off of last year’s hit. Both readers and writers deserve better.