Writers are so quick to tell people who they're influenced by. I see people billed by their influences. They will write a piece about an influence and that's how the bio will read. The back of their books will say who influenced them. When I see this, I know someone is a bad writer. I know they have no ability and there is nothing they will ever create that has any value.
A good writer has no influences. Not a one. They are wholly themselves. There is no aspect of anyone else. Further, the better they are, the less likely their work this time out will be similar to their work the time before or that the work to follow will itself be anything but new and fresh.
If you look to anyone else in determining what you are as a writer, you are not a writer. Or at least not a writer of consequence. You are a knock-off and a retread, to whatever degree, but once there is any degree of that, there's nothing, really, to be read by such a person. You're just reading some form of a copy. Why not just go to the source?
I see all of these fans of ghost stories, for instance, who like M.R. James, who like to read stories by other writers in the James tradition--that is, as Jamesian knock-offs.
Why? What does that do for you? Then you're not reading a writer's work, but rather partaking of a watered down style at some remove from the original. Are there not better things to do with one's time? Are there not better, richer things to read? So why not do them and read them instead?
And if you write like you--so to speak--and it's the same thing every time, then you have also failed. A writer should have no "style" as in this single way they write. Someone could say, "Agatha Christie did and it was the same type of work every time." It was. I can read Agatha Christie. But it's not life-shaking/changing art. Does everything have to be? No, obviously not. But when that's a possibility, should that not be the goal? I don't like formula and repetition. I don't like knowing what I'm getting into before I start. I like discovery and being knocked over. If that is available, why would I not seek it out?
Inspiration is different. I am inspired by the art of others all the time. I may see something outstanding and think, "We can do so much better than that, let's get after it." If I see someone do something well, I want to do something immeasurably better. I always can. I just have to do it. So off I go to do it with all of the focus and energy that requires. I'm motivated, I'm inspired. That's just one way.
I may be heartened that such art was made in this world. That can generate faith. Grow faith. That's another way to be inspired. I may be inspired to check out more from that artist, thousands of things more, if possible. To revisit. I might think about spending whole days with their work in peaceful bliss in Rockport when I get my house back, and that inspires me to keep battling, creating, getting up and doing it.
But never have I imitated anyone. I can't even conceive of incorporating what someone else has done into what I do. I don't even incorporate what I do into what I do. It changes every time. Each work is a new journey, a new being. A total surprise, even to me. It's setting out on a magical ride to a magical spot and I am excited to see what that's like and where I am taken.
No one has ever compared my work to the work of anyone because it is impossible to do so. I have written thousands and thousands of different ways, and yet not once has it been relevant or conceivable or doable to say, "This here is suggestive of blank's work." It has never happened and it will never happen. About whom else right now can that be said? There's no one.
Whereas everywhere else, you can look at a sentence and say, "Oh, I've seen that so many times before by others." Whether that's nonfiction and certainly with fiction.
Regarding the former: lately I've seen a lot of reviews and pieces about the Who's Next/Life House box set. They're all abysmal examples of writing. They all say the same things the same boring ways. They make the same topical, miss-the-point points. Autopilot writing. And with mistake after mistake in every sentence at the level of the sentence, things that a decent editor should flag and send back for a rewrite, but that doesn't happen.
Those editors don't exist, that's not the process, there are no standards, it's just filling up space by using one's cronies or whomever is connected and, above all, whomever is most like that person in charge and represents a standard-bearer of mediocrity--which is at a lower level than ever. That is who is given the role of having their name atop the junk that could have been by anyone, could have been done by anyone, that fills that space that no one reads and no one cares about and no one would care about even if everyone did read.
There are no ideas, no original thoughts, nothing compelling in the language. Lifeless, meaningless, cliche-driven flatness. And it's every single damn piece. I'm not sure if you made a prize of a billion dollars for the first person to think of a vaguely interesting thought, or a fresh turn of phrase, that any one of those people could do any better than what I'm seeing which makes my eyes glaze over in how piss-poor all of it is. It's not just piss-poor. It's the same shit again and again, regardless of author or venue. Indistinguishable. Is it really that hard to say anything slightly intelligent or insightful? Even hamfistedly?
Fiction is even worse. At least with nonfiction, someone can fly in a quote from somewhere else. Damn, that's depressing. That's the most you might find, though. "I didn't know Pete Townshend said that." But I always do, and what's more, I know where you got it, which is usually the most basic, primary source that I knew all about when I was sixteen. Talk about chewed meat.
But with fiction you're just getting the narcissistic nothingness of sheltered lives of people with no talent and imagination who are really trying to out-bore each other, because that's how they look at the purpose of writing. It's not to connect with readers or impel anyone or stir them, shake them at the level of their soul; it's to push away from the world, this sad, pathetic, pouty version of "I'm better than you," from a person who is so scared and insecure in reality.
You can't make any money doing what I just described, and these people can't face that they have no ability to create anything that a single person on earth might honestly care about, so in order to monetize being this way, they teach it. In order to teach it, it has to be something that can be passed on and learned. Hence, MFA writing. It's a scam so that broken people can keep lying to themselves and die before they ever have a single day of their life during which they deal squarely and nakedly with the truth--which they're also aware of on some level, because life for them is really a matter of running from that truth, rather than dealing with it and going from there. They can't do that. Which is also the point of great fiction (the dealing with it and going from there), so you have a conflict of interests. But there is no one anywhere who is actually less interested in actual great writing than these people in this system, including people who never read and haven't read a book in their lives. They, at least, are not actively seeking to destroy the ideals of great writing.
Any jackass can learn to write like a douchebag in a day. Academia strings that out for years, though, because that's the revenue re: writing and writers. Writing itself isn't. But the douchebag becomes seasoned, steeped in that douchebaggery. What person does not become their environment? A veteran of the douchebag scene. Then the work becomes even more predictable and lifeless, pretentious, hateful and fearful of the very idea of audience. It's like it dares you to read more than the first stupid, off-putting opening clause. And no one does. No one could, no one would.
Then that's what you see (figure of speech; no one actually sees it, and you, whomever you might be, reading these pages, only sees it here when I share it in service to a larger argument) in Granta and American Short Fiction and The Missouri Review, provided the people whose names were at the top of that meaninglessness were properly connected and were like the people in charge/deciding who got the slots, and not a threat to those douchebags and their house of cards sense of self because they'd recognized a fellow douchebag at their level. It cannot be someone at a higher level. Then it's game over for that person, if the douchebag can help it.
That's the best case scenario for such people. Then they can go on Facebook and share a link to their unreadable "who gives a fuck"--which ought to be the name for the kind of thing they wrote, like a noun--and 400 people who are the exact same person and who write the exact same way who'd rather examine the toilet paper after they took a shit than actually read that work will hit the like button, because that's how they play along and try and secure what they want coming back to them. Also: this is what is meant by "literary citizen" and "literary community." It's nothing honest or healthy.
It is better to see if one might write as only one can write. And if one can, to take that as far as possible. And to inspire people, whatever form that takes. And if one can't, it's better to do something else. Or at least not be a douchebag. Being a less horrible person is also something one may do.