The company I keep

We are often known by the company we keep. For good or ill, those we associate with can influence us, often in subtle ways that even we do not recognize. I’ve certainly known this about my writing. If I’m reading Faulkner for a long time (is there any other way to read Faulkner though?) I find my own writing tends to become indirect and cryptic, layered and nuanced. That’s all fine and good, though such writing is probably best left to those who are masters at it and not tyros like me who just embarrass themselves. The same is often true when I read Philip Roth, especially middle period Philip Roth when the character dialogue crackled with electricity. I find myself writing dialogue that attempts to mimic his style.

In many ways I think this is a good thing. It stretches my writing muscles and takes me down new paths. (I don’t think that’s a completely mixed metaphor.) But as I noted already, if it’s mimicry, then it’s not my true style. If I don’t understand what I’m doing, I don’t think I can do it well or sustain it. More than that, though, I need to pursue whatever is my style, the voice I can use consistently and reliably in my stories. I need to master my own technique and produce a style that is unique to me (at whatever level of creativity and innovation that will be).

Yet there is a dark side to this phenomenon too. What if I find myself reading bad writing? “Bad” is relative, of course, but if we aspire to certain heights, many styles of writing fall below that, and what if they have the same influence on my work as the “good” writing does? What I fear is that they do.

I don’t mean this to sound elitist. We all have our tastes in technique and genre. Yet I’ve seen novels warmly recommended that I’ve regretted reading because I didn’t think they were well done. I’ve seen certain big-name novelists, who make lots and lots of money, get lavishly recommended as stylists, and many aspire to write just like them. Perhaps these “successful” writers were up to the standards of their ambition and audience, and if so, kudos to them. But if they were not up to what I aspire to, or if I can find flaws in the writing, then I worry that I have exposed myself to a negative influence.

Fortunately, there is plenty of material out there that is far better than I can ever hope to achieve. I’m learning which writers I should avoid and which I should immerse myself in.

In either case, however, I think the influences are fleeting. If I pick up a novel that has disappointing writing, and I worry that it will drag down my own writing, I can take an antidote by reading something from far above my skills. I’ll feel cleansed for a short time, then I’ll lose the effect and just keep stumbling along in the discovery and development of my own writing style.

Does this kind of thing happen to you?

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2 Comments on “The company I keep”

  1. Brian Keaney Says:

    I find that styles are like accents: you pick them up without even trying. Nevertheless, I always maintain that you can learn as much from reading a bad book as a good one, even if it’s only that you see more clearly what you don’t want to do.

  2. Pete Says:

    Not so much writing style, but definitely subject matter. I just finished reading a George Ade short story collection whose pieces were originally published as newspaper columns, so they were much shorter and sketchier than they should have been. Again and again I found myself mentally writing longer stories based on Ade’s original pieces.


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