Influential Authors

I had planned to write you a review of The Women’s Room by Marilyn French today, because believe you me, I have one or two things to say about it. But I am too tired. Last night we went out to the theatre to see the musical, Little Shop of Horrors. It was an excellent production, slick, funny and the singing was fantastic. Apparently it had come from the West End and was headed off on a three-month tour of the UK. We nearly didn’t go, because when I went to book tickets (the trip was intended to be part of my husband’s birthday present) the cost seemed a bit prohibitive, and I ended up saying I’d think about it. Well, I thought no more about it until the theatre rang offering me the tickets at a significantly reduced price, and so I decided, why not? The theatre must only have been about two-thirds full, as a result of many people hesitating the way I had done, no doubt, but we were a highly appreciative audience.

As you probably know, the storyline concerns a decrepit florists shop on Skid Row, where everyone is poor and pessimistic. The young dogsbody of the shop, the gullible and neglected Seymour, ends up cultivating a bizarre plant that only grows when he feeds it blood. But as the plant grows, so his fortunes are miraculously turned around, the fame of the extraordinary plant spreads far and wide, and the riches start to roll in. So it’s a Faustian pact story with a nice line in chilling materialism, as the plant starts to get more and more demanding in order to satisfy its blood lust. By the end I decided that as a story, it was a tragedy of low self-esteem. The worse you think of yourself, the more you shun your birthright of basic entitlement, the more you end up paying in blood to some monster of outrageous demands to make you feel good about yourself. And even that doesn’t work. I told my husband and son this as we were walking out. My husband snorted with laughter and my son gave me one of those looks that suggested that he was erasing that remark from his data banks. But then the big cardboard cut out of the plant standing in the theatre doorway suddenly lit up and started pleading ‘Feed me, Seymour!’ and the whole group of us nearby just cracked up. That plant really is the star of the show. Even at the end, when we know how evil and monstrous it is, we all sat there cooing ‘Awww, look how cute that plant is when it dances!’ I think it’s a phenomenon to which would-be world leaders should pay attention. Never underestimate the persuasive power of rhythm.

I do like my wide margins to the day still; late nights and early mornings do take their toll. To add to last night’s excitements, there was Tuesday morning when I had to get up at the crack of dawn to take my son to school. Usually my husband does this part of the day, but he’d had to get up even earlier to go to a breakfast meeting of all things in London. He works for a small start-up firm and had come home in rather somber mood on Monday to say that his boss’s wife had just been diagnosed with clinical depression and he would have to take over some of his work. As if worries about the recession and the volatile nature of small businesses weren’t enough, they now have this happen, and undoubtedly in part due to the strain the boss’s family must have been through over the past few years. They have four children and he’s rarely home. So my husband has not been his usual cheerful puppy self this week, not least because I am conscious that the event has recalled for him memories of the difficult years when I had chronic fatigue badly. Once he’d told me about Jon’s wife, he said ‘don’t get depressed, will you? And I said I thought it was unlikely, because through the years of ME, I’ve been annoyed and frustrated and completely fed up, and sometimes very miserable but I haven’t ever been properly depressed. But it just goes to show that bad stuff happening does not necessarily make you a stronger person. It may well be that the experience of trauma and tragedy makes you wiser, and more tolerant and compassionate and humble, but it also gives you a much better idea of what to dread.

Anyhow, to get on to what I actually intended to write about today, probably a mere 700 words or so into the post, I saw over at Dorothy’s site, this fun meme that asks you to list your 25 most influential authors. I couldn’t come up with a whole 25, but instead offer you 10, with the brief addition of how they’ve been influential to me.

Enid Blyton – supremely jolly children’s writer, who taught me that the moral universe of the book – literary karma – is the place where the body blows are dealt to the reader. And that issues of injustice and retribution are most palatable when handled with cheery optimism, even if that’s not terribly realistic.

Agatha Christie – Golden Age crime novelist who taught me that the most gripping plot is a slow, continually surprising, revelation of the truth.

Colette – Early to mid-20th century French author whose sumptuous description, clear-sighted gender politics and determination to explore experience for its anecdotal value has long provided me with a beloved role model.

Proust – Early 20th century French author whose lengthy sentences marry intense emotional scrutiny to philosophical thought. I was instantly won over to such a method.

Rainer Maria Rilke – 20th century German poet and novelist. Rilke was one of the first authors I encountered who understood that there is the real world, and there is the miasma of metaphysical meaning that hovers around it, the meanings, significance, implications, truths, symbols we draw out from it. The more artistic sensitivity you have, the more this other dimension dominates and overwhelms perception. It’s a pain in the neck to live with, but it’s the source of all art. Fundamentally that’s what Rilke writes about, and I was utterly fascinated by it.

Sigmund Freud – the daddy of psychoanalysis. He may have got things a bit wrong here and there, but it’s of little matter. He brings together mind and body, thought, emotion and the power of storytelling to change lives.

Julia Kristeva – late 20th century French psychoanalyst who is very, very difficult to read. I broke my head on Kristeva as a graduate student, but she altered the course of psychoanalysis by insisting that the mother was the fundamentally important figure in a child’s life. Much developed in her thought and mine, from that point.

Julian Barnes – late 20th century English novelist. I won’t say much about the delightful Mr Barnes, other than that he taught me that erudition is great in books, so long as it comes with humour and the strong sensation of the author’s guiding hand.

Joan Acocella – late 20th century American critic whose essays bowled me over last year. I had no idea that literary biographical criticism could be so elegant and such fun.

Janet Malcolm – late 20th century American biographer, who showed how biography becomes ever more interesting when you line all those different eye witness accounts up together and just marvel at the radical differences between them. There’s a lot to be learned there, about reading books, and reading as we do it in our daily encounters.

If anybody else wants to play along with their most influential authors, feel free!

20 thoughts on “Influential Authors

  1. Glad you and your family enjoyed your night out. I had to laugh at your husband’s and son’s reaction to your thoughts about the play. I get those kinds of looks all the time from my family.

  2. but it also gives you a much better idea of what to dread.

    Ha! Truer words were never spoken. Written. Whatever.

    I love your subtextual interpretation of Little Shop. And here I thought the moral was that people shouldn’t be bad dentists, lest an unexpected fate befall them.

    This also reminded me of a friend of mine who is active in local amateur theater … he told me once about an audition session for Little Shop at which he was present as an observer. The director was standing in for Seymour, and a flamboyantly gay guy was auditioning for the plant. The director, a well-known figure in town, is quite the Greek-godlike specimen. Anyway, the auditioner, evidently distracted, heard his musical cue and bellowed: “Eat me, Seymour!”

  3. Lilian – it was fun to do. I would love to read your answers!

    Lisa – I’m grateful for the solidarity! My family, bless them, do much to keep me humble, which can only be a good thing. 😉

    David – oh when you’ve been there, it’s not something you easily forget, right? Naturally you are perfectly correct about the bad dentists. There are several of my acquaintance who could be fed, limb by limb, to a plant and I would not flinch, and so the morality tale is essential viewing for them, I think. And your anecdote… oh, I had to wipe away tears of mirth. Now there’s a post for another day – auditions I have attended. None quite so funny as that, alas.

  4. I passed your quote (about knowing what to dread) on to my eldest son who is going through some stress right now. (It’s awful seeing your kids suffer through adult problems. I always think of them as children.) I think your words were pure sterling.

  5. I don’t know about most influential, but some of the best loved: L. Frank Baum, Victor Hugo, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, William Shakespeare, Edgar Alan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Connon Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway (and several hundred more).

  6. Grad – oh I feel hugely flattered! But my heart goes out to your son and to you. I dread the time when my son is entangled in real, adult problems, as he must, as is wholly unavoidable. I’m sure it feels terrible. Your list of best loved authors, however, is delightful. My ex-PhD student (now lecturing on the other side of the country) wrote his thesis on Hugo and Sartre, and it’s quite rare to find other Hugo officionados!

  7. Oh, and I forgot my most influential authors list: George Eliot, Robertson Davies, TC Boyle, Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins [Grad, are we related?], Peter Carey, Dorothy Dunnett, Roald Dahl, and (slightly embarrassed) James Herriot (hey, they’re amazingly well-told stories. REALLY.).

  8. When I first started reading your post I thought one of those plants might be a good deal in this economy, but I quickly changed my opinion by the end of the paragraph–lol. The dancing plant sounds very entertaing however! Between you and Dorothy I really do need to read Janet Malcolm I see. I love reading these memes and seeing how closely they reflect the people who write them!

  9. That comment about knowing what to dread really sticks in the mind, Litlove… it strikes me as an excellent premise for a book, as a matter of fact. Gosh, most influential authors… where to begin?! Like Lilian I’ll have to retreat and give this some thought…

  10. What a fun night out you had. I laughed at your husband and son’s response to your analysis of the play and how you took it all in stride. Oh how I’d love to tag along witht he Litlove family sometime!

    No surprise that Freud or Kisteva are on your list. You are a hardy soul to to have studied her. I had to read some of her stuff in grad school and she was one of the most difficult writers I have ever read. No Jacques Lacan though? He seems like he’d be right up your alley. 🙂

  11. Thanks for doing the meme — the answers are fun to read, and I like your descriptions of each author and why he/she is meaningful. There’s a lot of reading I’d like to do in that list, including more Barnes and Malcolm and some Acocella. And I hope your husband is managing okay with all the work trouble — not fun!

  12. David – that’s a great list of authors there. You remind me I really must read Robertson Davies and T C Boyle, both of whom I’ve heard very good things about. You need never be embarrassed before a woman who has just named Enid Blyton as a significant author, and in any case, you are not alone in a Herriot enthusiasm. I wish I could remember where I saw him mentioned, but I do remember a blogger explaining in quite some detail why he was so good.

    Danielle – lol!! I could probably work that plant into a metaphor of the economy – on any day but Friday, maybe! 🙂 The dancing plant was really cute. I do think you’d like Janet Malcolm – I’m hoping to read her book about the journalist and the murderer soon, and I reckon you’d like that a lot. Aren’t people’s lists reflective of their blog character? You’re right, it’s most intriguing!

    Doctordi – I couldn’t be more thrilled if I have unwittingly provoked an idea. I think my ideal job would be that of a muse (what a job! what fun! something you’d really want to get out of bed for in the morning!). And I look forward very much to any further thoughts you have on your influential authors.

    Stefanie – and wouldn’t we just love to have you along! I’ll take that recognition about Kristeva, thank you, because she is HARD and it hurt my brain. As for Lacan, well do you know, I think everyone must have a limit point and I think he is mine. I can take a little psychoanalytic abstraction, I can take a little experimental, punning discourse, I can take some brain-wrenching ideas, but put them all together in Lacan and suddenly I realise I simply can’t work that hard. 😉

    Verbivore – I look forward to the day you do! 🙂 But until then, there’s always the rest of the TBR pile, right….?

    Dorothy – this meme has spread like wildfire, so it was a good call on your part – thank you! I had to pad it out a bit as I couldn’t come up with 25, and it was interesting to see how they’d influenced me. Thank you for being so nice about my husband – so many people are struggling with work right now, and to be honest, start-ups are like working in a recession all the time anyway! But work worries are indeed never fun.

  13. Well, I’ve already played along, and tagged you, too. I have to say I admire you for sticking to ten. I had a very difficult time sticking to 25 (although I’m sure people will tire of reading through all my descriptions of why/how each one influenced me). I’m glad to see we have at least one in common on our respective lists (although Sigmund Freud ought to be on mine). Oh, and are your husband and son related to my husband? Their reactions to your spot-on thoughts on the play are scarily familiar.

  14. Emily – I loved all your 25 and read every word! This is a great meme and a lot of fun to do. I’ll bet if I’d carried on to 25, we would have had several more in common!

  15. Don DeLillo has to take out my Most Influential Author prize for obvious reasons. But other than that, if we’re talking across my lifetime to date, I’d have to say Maurice Sendak, Enid Blyton, Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Charles Bukowski, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Elmore Leonard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Robertson Davies, Joan Lindsay, Margaret Atwood and of course my newly acquired hero, John Kennedy Toole. That’s a few, anyway.

  16. Playing blog catch-up and I love the list. (Also loved the musical and have fond memories of an excellent production from our pupils when I was a teacher. The soon-to-be head-boy put in a brilliant performance as Audrey.) You’ve also reminded me to read more of Barnes not to mention Freud.

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