Having cited the three main influences on my development as a student and writer of fiction, I thought I might go on to discuss the topic in more variety. As I mentioned in my previous post, I have read a little bit here and there, as most people in my world have done. Most of us still have big things we haven’t gotten to, and most of us have gone off on our own paths of interest, but there is a core of literature that many of us share. I will mention a few highlights that are probably on other people’s lists as well.
In my undergraduate education at UCLA, I had good instruction in the reading of poetry, mainly British poetry, and I believe that has helped me in all other reading. For the most part, I enjoyed everything I read. My sophomore-level survey courses, plus a junior-level course in the reading of poetry, introduced me to a wide variety of poets from John Donne to Thom Gunn. In my upper division course work, I had courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, authors whose work I had read before. Reading it again, in upper-level courses with serious professors in a memorable atmosphere of dedicated learning, fixed those works even more solidly as part of my basic literary experience.
During that time I also read Dryden, Pope, Swift, Fielding, Johnson, Sterne, and Austen in various courses, and all of that work has stayed with me as well. I think I have always felt the responsibility to learn everything in my field and related to it, an impossible undertaking as one comes to understand, but every time I was exposed to a new period or a new genre of literature, I felt compelled to read more in that area and to learn more about it. And so I took a couple of courses in Victorian fiction, in which I developed an acquaintance with Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, Eliot, Meredith, and Hardy. Then toward the end of my stay at UCLA I took a course in American literature, which introduced me to James, Crane, and Wharton, plus others who have held less interest for me, such as Whitman and Dickinson.
In between the survey courses and seminars, I took a course in Greek literature in translation, taught by a Classics professor, and there we read the Iliad and the Odyssey. What a world that opened up, as I learned about the oral tradition, the formulaic constructions in the hexameter line, the overall structure of epic, and the timeless content of the stories themselves. We also read a few Greek lyric poets, and I developed an appreciation of the epigram.
During the years of graduate school, time stretched out. Through an assistantship I discovered teaching, so I did not read with the same intensity as before, but over a stretch of years I read more in just about everything I studied as an undergraduate, plus I read deliberately in the major novelists of Britain and America, plus many of the minor novelists. More Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy; excursions into Joyce, Woolf, Forster, Waugh; works by Scott, the Brontës. Also during this period I did my first reading in authors I would return to often in later years, such as Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Cather, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. I had also read Faulkner and Steinbeck all along.
When I did the work for my doctoral dissertation in the western novel, another world of literature opened up for me. I discovered and read what were the standard authors at the time: Owen Wister, Zane Grey, Emerson Hough, Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Conrad Richter, Ernest Haycox, A.B. Guthrie, Jr., Frederick Manfred, and Jack Schaefer.
When I went into full-time teaching, I tried to keep reading broadly, and in my first ten years at Eastern Wyoming College, I discovered Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, and others who were the top fiction writers of the 1980’s. During this time, as part of my teaching work, I found myself reading some of the same traditional authors time and again, many of whom I still read, and I have come to understand what it means for a work to stand the test of time. Some works continue to come alive, not only with the passing of time but with successive readings. To this day, there are stories by Stephen Crane, Katherine Mansfield, Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, and Eudora Welty that do not grow old no matter how often I read them. The same goes for poems by Robert Browning, A.E. Housman, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course the bard himself, Shakespeare. Some novels hold up very well (provided that I do not read them more often than every two years), and sometimes I am surprised that when I go through O Pioneers! or The Great Gatsby one more time, the work is just as good as ever. I do not read The Age of Innocence or Great Expectations quite so often, but they, too, are always great novels. I regret that I cannot say that for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If I have not read it for ten or twenty years, it is still tiresome before I get halfway through it. The same goes for Shane, while in contrast, I never tire of The Sea of Grass or The Big Sky.
In a way, this seems like just a long list of books and authors I have read, but I have mentioned mostly those that I have read seriously and that have been part of a coherent experience. Even at that, I have left out a few strays, such as John Barth (what smart-aleck lit major didn’t read him in the 1970’s?), Albert Camus (thanks to the great French instructors at UCLA), and E.L. Doctorow (once you’ve read Welcome to Hard Times, the western novel isn’t the same). Then there are authors of lesser literary rank such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who also go into the larger mix.
In addition to all of the above, there are influences that not everyone would grant are literary, such as Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Ian Tyson. I would be hard put to explain how the works of these artists have intertwined into my reading of other works or into my thinking about how experience can be represented.
If I were to look for common denominators in all of this, I would say that most broadly I value form and style, structure and technique. Of course those features are empty if there isn’t some real content, some feeling for human potential and human failings, that rings true in a way that every writer should want her work to do. John Barth once wrote, “Making love and telling stories both take more than good technique, but it’s only the technique we can talk about.” For analytical purposes I agree with that statement, so that I can say, for example, that in The Sea of Grass or The Great Gatsby I value the role of the narrator, the use of figurative language, the idea of what people aspire to and what they end up with. For less analytical purposes I can say that there is something in me as a reader and as a writer that would not be there if I hadn’t spent melancholy hours listening to “Gates of Eden” “Desolation Row,” and later, “Back to the Barrooms” and “Summer Wages.” And, although there are people who resent McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a western film, there is something in Leonard Cohen’s music that connects with the first time I heard Judy Collins sing “Suzanne,” at about the time I first read Oedipus Rex and was getting a glimpse of the world beyond the farm and ranch life I grew up in.
Read more about John’s literary influences in Part 1.