Favourite Books & Influences by Jacques Strauss
I love it when a famous person, be they an actor, politician, writer or celebrity is asked what their favourite book is. It’s a real bitch of a question for a number of reasons:
1) The interviewer is asking them to distil everything that they love about the vast tidal wave of text that is literature into a single book. Simply by answering the question they do an insult to the canon.
2) The interviewer is asking them to assign a metonymic function to a book; choose a book that represents you, in your varied complexity and ambiguity. Reduce yourself to only one book.
3) If you are deliberately cultivating a fan base or voters there is a complex interplay between taking yourself too seriously, being flippant and (worst of all) being obvious and boring. You can feel the strain: I’m one the people, just like you! But I am also smart. I appreciate literature with a capital ‘L’ even though people think I’m vacant and facile.
No matter what book people choose, it’s invariably disappointing. My reaction is generally, ‘Yeah – that’s a good book. It’s a very good book. But that? That’s your totemic piece of literature? Of everything you could choose that stood out? Jeez, I guess you’re just not as cool as I thought you were.’ Of course it’s even more disappointing when they opt for the standard bail out: ‘Oh, there are too many books,’ they say, ‘I couldn’t possibly choose just one.’ That’s when you want to say, ‘Oh go on! Nail your colours to the mast! You will disappoint – but gives us your best shot you coward!’
Of course I am glad I don’t have to this answer this question because I couldn’t choose one book. But I suppose for a writer the question of influences is different. Famous writers are always telling aspiring writers to ‘read, read and read some more’ but they seem to differ on why this is good advice. Some imply that through a process of osmosis you unconsciously absorb good writing technique. Others suggest that to benefit from good writing you need to make a deliberate study of the techniques they use. You liked that passage? Well read it again and this time analyse what it is the writer did. How did they evoke that response? In the work of Murial Spark for example, it’s interesting to see how she uses heightened language for comedic passages and a more paired back, direct style for serious ones. Of course this technique is employed by lots of writers, but Spark does it so well. Her use of repetition is also pitch perfect and highly evocative.
Some of the most important influences are the one’s the give you permission to do things you wouldn’t otherwise consider. When you read Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint you realise ‘Oh – you can go there. You can go that far.’ And when you read Douglas Coupland you realise it’s perfectly ok, if done with sufficient skill, for the authorial voice to intrude, to riff, on this or that matter, to litter the text with ‘babies’ while everyone else is calling for immediate and ruthless infanticide. The best writers are way ahead, slashing through the thicket of rules and advice, clearing the path for the rest of us to follow.
But there is more than that. The great authors are like deep reservoirs of writing fuel; their writing is so deeply and richly associative that it sparks off dozens of your own memories and ideas and experiences. For me J. M. Coetzee does this every time. Whenever he eviscerates one of his characters I usually feel a bit roughed up too.
Finally there’s that group of people who aren’t necessarily fiction writers, but are equally inspiring. Whatever you may think about Freud he articulated the conflict that sits at the heart of every good character: the vast difference between your childish fantasies of what the world and you should be, versus what you and the world actually are. And though he may not have been of the psychoanalytic school, these Freudian conflicts are wonderfully and theatrically realised in the experiments of Stanley Milgram. Has there ever been a more compelling piece of psychological research than the obedience experiment? As for Nina Simone … well what does one need to say about Nina Simone? She’s just awesome.