A Writer’s Debts: Jonathan Lethem Examines His Influences

Italo Calvino, Robert Altman, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Don DeLillo, H.P. Lovecraft, James Baldwin, Vivian Gornick, Lester Bangs, Raymond Chandler and Nietzsche among them

"The Ecstasy of Influence" by Jonathan Lethem. (Courtesy Doubleday)
If Jonathan Lethem had gotten his way, his new book, The Ecstasy of Influence (Doubleday, 464 pages, $27.95), would be subtitled “Advertisements for Norman Mailer.” Both titles are borrowed from other writers: The Ecstasy of Influence is a play on literary critic Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence, while the subtitle is lifted from Norman Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself. Mr. Lethem’s editor nixed the Mailer-inspired subtitle in favor of “Nonfictions, etc.,” which is more straightforward, but perhaps not as descriptive of this bursting-at-the-seams collection of essays, profiles, reviews, fictions and juvenilia. As its title suggests, the book explores Mr. Lethem’s many influences, literary and otherwise, but it does so in such a free-wheeling, frank and boisterous fashion that a nod to Mailer seems appropriate. At the very least, the collaged aspect of having one riffed-upon title jammed up against another would have hinted at the cut-and-paste extravaganza inside.



In his preface, Mr. Lethem acknowledges his debt to Mailer, describing Advertisements for Myself as “the template for throwing fiction, poetry, letters, etc., into the same collection, along with so much preening apparatus.” It’s that “preening apparatus” that made Advertisements interesting, and that Mr. Lethem imitates with aplomb. Mailer wasn’t content to gather up his miscellaneous short works and write a preface; he had to comment on his selections, too, providing context, analysis and even misgivings. One way to describe Advertisements is to call it a blog in book form, and at one point, Mr. Lethem apologetically refers to his own collection as “bloggish.” Both are cases of the kind of book that only a novelist with some degree of personal celebrity would ever dream of putting out.

Mr. Lethem’s fame was more gradually attained than Mailer’s, but both writers helped define a prevailing literary aesthetic. In Mailer’s case, it was the personal, first-person style of New Journalism, which he pioneered in The Village Voice, a paper he co-founded. Mr. Lethem’s aesthetic has been called, for lack of a better term, “genre-bending.” It’s a technique that mixes genres in unexpected ways, often elevating pulp fiction devices by deploying them in narratives otherwise driven by language and character. Mr. Lethem describes his first novel, Gun With Occasional Music, as “Philip K. Dick meets Raymond Chandler.” His breakthrough novel, 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn, also had Chandleresque elements, mixing detective novel tropes with a hyperrealistic narrator who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. He followed this with his highly acclaimed novel The Fortress of Solitude, a Bildungsroman set in pregentrified, 1970s Brooklyn, whose plot hinges on a magic ring that grants superhero abilities.

Many contemporary writers have toyed with this genre-poaching method, Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Colson Whitehead among them. But Mr. Lethem disagrees with critics who suggest that writers of his generation are influencing one another directly. Instead, he argues, it’s the natural impulse of a generation whose formative influences come from comic books, movies and television. And in this, he may be too modest. Would Mr. Whitehead’s recently published novel, Zone One, which takes as its point of departure the 1970s zombie movie Dawn of the Dead, have been so quickly embraced if Mr. Lethem had not laid the groundwork with his comic book-infected The Fortress of Solitude? And without Mr. Lethem, would Jennifer Egan have described her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad as inspired, in equal measure, by Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and HBO’s long-running series The Sopranos? For better and for worse, Mr. Lethem is part of a vanguard of Gen-X writers whose M.O. is to put a literary gloss on their pop culture enthusiasms.

Mr. Lethem would quibble with “pop culture,” finding it snobbish. He prefers “vernacular culture,” since many of his pulp influences are not popular at all, but cultish and strange. “The science-fiction writers I knew functioned like poets, mining for tribal rewards, names unknown elsewhere, and no thought of quitting their day jobs—yet you’d still hear literary novelists slight ‘commercial writing.’” Mr. Lethem is charmed by sci-fi’s self-sufficiency and suspicious of his desire to be an ambassador to the genre, referring to his own efforts as a “gentrification campaign.” In a long, moving tribute to his literary hero, Philip K. Dick, he worries that his love, once simple, is now of a “colonizing, acquisitive variety.” Much of The Ecstasy of Influence, and perhaps Mr. Lethem’s sensibility in general, is about his struggle to reconcile his loyalties to both genre and literary communities.

At the heart of The Ecstasy of Influence is an essay by the same name, which was first published in Harper’s in 2007. Subtitled “a plagiarism,” the essay argued against unnecessarily restrictive copyright laws through the liberal use of unattributed quotations. When published, it was greeted with joy by information-wants-to-be-free Internet gurus and befuddlement by writers who wondered if Mr. Lethem was calling for the death of quotation marks. Four years later, Mr. Lethem admits the essay may have “contradicted itself internally,” as it “tried to occupy abandoned acreage in the middle of a battlefield, between the extremes of copyright-abolitionist anarchy and … the romantic notion of the capital-A Artist in a Promethean vacuum.” Ultimately, the essay led him to think more deeply about influence and to gather his writings about the subject into one volume.

A Writer’s Debts: Jonathan Lethem Examines His Influences