By: Maria Popova
A self-conscious reflection on literary self-consciousness, or what David Foster Wallace’s true gift really was.
If you’ve ever aspired to write a book — and let’s agree that ‘book’ is not a diagnosis of medium — or understand those who do and have, then Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is for you. It’s part anthology of Lethem’s finest longform writing, part meditation on what it means to be what Lethem calls, not without a good measure of self-conscious self-consciousness, “an intellectual” — and even what it means to be an intellectual reader of an intellectual. He terms this the “white elephant” role of the author as a public intellectual and goes on to explore its burdens, blessings, and cultural responsibilities. (And he welcomes you to the conversation with a “bias spoiler alert” that forewarns: “I think I’m an intellectual, and I think you are too, whether you like it or not.”)
The zesty collection of “uncollected” writings includes some of Lethem’s best-known nonfiction pieces, exploring everything from cinema to graffiti to cyberculture to Bob Dylan, lined with a layer of metadata — epigraphs, quotes, reviews. But, above all, the anthology is about what Lethem calls “negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves — the permanent trouble of being alive.” He writes:
I want to bite the hand that feeds me, even if that hand is sometimes yours, reader.
The book’s title is based on Lethem’s excellent 2007 Harper’s Magazine essay, “The ecstasy of influence: A plagiarism.” Curiously, Lethem appears preoccupied — whether in self-conscious jest or in heartfelt reality, the line between which is always elusive in the heart of the novelist — with these “plagiarisms,” “lifts both acknowledged and unacknowledged, both conscious and (surely) unconscious.” Curious because he gladly lists his many influences in writing his newest pieces — Renata Adler, Mark McGurl, David Foster Wallace, to name a few, alongside “usual suspects” like David Shields, Geoff Dyer, and Annie Dillard, as well as his life’s obsession with Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Given this very book is essentially a florilegium of writings and ideas by both Lethem himself and his literary influences, to slap the label “plagiarism” on the fundamental dynamic of what I’ve all too frequently referred to as combinatorial creativity is, at best, a semantic slip in the age of remix culture and, at its most unwholesome, an affront on the very mechanism that fuels creation, literary or otherwise.
(You can catch more of Lethem’s thoughts on influence in the excellent documentary Walking on Eggshells: Borrowing Culture in the Remix Age.)
For a taste, here are some favorite quotes that capture the mischievous irreverence and deep reflection with which Lethem approaches his subject.
On David Foster Wallace and self-consciousness:
David Foster Wallace deserves to be remembered as a great writer not because he was capable of doing PhD-level philosophical speculation as well as shunting fictional characters (slowly) through a well-described room but because he mastered a certain area of human sensation totally: intricate self-conscious remorse at the fact of self-consciousness. Wallace’s way of loading up this indistinct area with scrupulous depiction made a lot of people feel less lonely; meanwhile, the possibility that being the depicter made Wallace feel more lonely has become a widely circulated armchair-shrink’s allegory for the usefulness of self-consciousness. Because it doesn’t help. Doesn’t help the depressed person feel undepressed, doesn’t help the storyteller tell the story.
On language and self-consciousness:
Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place.
On language and abstraction:
Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream.
On influence itself:
Influence is semiconscious, not something to delineate too extensively, except when we’ve patterned our latest book on a literary monument of the past, at least a half-century old, by a master with whom we’d never dare compare ourselves, only hope to be ‘worthy of.’
On the curse of micro-celebrity:
If you want to drive a person mad in a fame culture, offer him only a little fame, the very least amount you can scrape up. This happens every day, but it happens in slow motion for novelists. We’re like the guy who gets voted off first on Survivor, except instead of departing the island we walk its beaches forever, muttering.
On the crux of writing:
All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of the manipulation of symbols rather than the ‘opening of a window onto life.’
On Vonnegut’s famously bitter retort to critics he thought wanted to see him vanish from the literary landscape — “I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books” — and the meta-irony therein:
Vonnegut wasn’t feeling powerful when he made his bitter remark about being in print, but his ability to enshrine the remark in hardcovers and keep it in circulation shows he was wrong.
With its meta-commentary and its passionate urgency, The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. is at once a collection of some of our time’s best longform writing and a welcome reflection, if a self-conscious one, on the writer’s fate in contemporary culture.
Donating = Loving
Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.
You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.