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September 23, 2008

CAAF: Anxiety of influence

When I heard Junot Díaz read last spring, he mentioned how when he started writing he was "stealing from the writers I loved the best. I cold-mugged the books." Cold-mugging your favorite writers -- a fine literary tradition. Reading John Updike's appreciation of William Maxwell, it was nice to learn this anecdote about Maxwell's first novel, Bright Center of Heaven, which was first published in 1934 and later suppressed by the author on the grounds it was "stuck fast in it is period" and "hopelessly imitative."

In a Paris Review interview, [Maxwell] said, "My first novel . . . is a compendium of all the writers I loved and admired." Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse," especially, is imitated in the drifting weave of action and interior reflection, and in the rhythms, paced by commas, of the long descriptive sentences. Ten years after the novel's publication, he reread it and wrote, "I . . . discovered to my horror that I had lifted a character--the homesick servant girl--lock, stock, and barrel from 'To the Lighthouse.' "

Posted September 23, 2008 12:05 AM

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