Apparently, the influence of classic literature on current writers has declined in today’s generation of reader-writers as compared to others, a recent “word-frequency” study from Dartmouth says. According to the study, another kind of anxiety of influence is the anxiety of what living authors are doing right now. Well, how about just keeping up with publishing?
And, anyway, so what?
You and almost everyone else don’t read classic literature because it’s (1) tough, (2) requires sustained focus, and (3) is in non-current language. Writers are readers too. Well, writers are supposed to read as much or more than they write. Study other writers. Be influenced and all that. At least at first and for some.
Andy Warhol said something like, “Being good at business is one of the most fascinating kinds of art.” Maybe that approach–that way of viewing and embracing the entirety of his artistic enterprise–aided Warhol’s success. Surely it did.
Regardless, the day of the naive writer holing away and just writing something profound and enduring and then finding the masses, if that day was ever here, is done long gone. Profound changes a’happening fast in the publishing industry itself. To participate at any level means hopping in the current. This alone would seem to have an inevitable wearing away at the readership of past masterpieces. Also, (4) there’s an ever-expanding universe of what to read, and (5) as globalization expands so does the definition of the “canon” and what we consider classic in the first place, and (6) did we even mention the thousands of other entertainment niches we all have immediate and gratifying access to? That’s three more.
So, my take on this research that shows that writers are “less influenced” by writers of the past is that the study itself almost seems archaic. It seems obvious for many reasons. What’s changed isn’t people, or even necessarily the disintegration of culture. What’s happening is that it’s all a writer can do to write well, and somehow participate in the promotion and distribution and hyper-maintenance of one’s writing existence. That’s a lot of writing, reading, and thinking about writing and reading. Oh, and it just so happens that you can find more really outstanding writing right now than ever before.
And that can be plenty of anxiety enough.