by Sherwood Smith
I recently reread The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community, by Diana Pavlac Glyer, leading me to a question.
Without any academic snarkiness, Glyer thoroughly dismantles Humphrey Carpenter’s assurance in his 1978 work on the Inklings that they had little or no influence on one another. All the odder as he furnishes the book with a fictional Inklings evening, demonstrating that they did. Perhaps the question is in how one defines ‘influence.’
Anyway, Glyer’s scholarship is vast. She hasn’t just read all the Inklings’s work (including their small press zines published for fun, like Lewis and Barfield’s mock legal “papers” Mark Vs Tristram, after the furor about Mallory’s somewhat louche, definitely violent biographical details* came to light), she’s read widely about writing process. I saw Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence referenced, and she draws heavily on current process scholarship, specifically Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act.
Which opens the way to what I want to talk about, but to finish with the book first: It’s a remarkable achievement that a book so crampacked with rigorous scholarship (20 pages of tiny print for Works Cited alone, and an Index that serves as a model of how Indices should be done) is so clear and even charmingly written. Though I like Lewis and Tolkien’s work I am not all that fond of the works of the rest of the Inklings, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think it’s the best on the subject yet, and that by a sizable margin.
Coming to the questions now. Glyer sets her work against the larger question of writers and their influences.
Here are some interesting quotes. From page 10:
Contrary to popular belief, writing groups and other kinds of collaborative circles do not typically take shape at a clear and specific point in time as individuals rally around a common cause or a charismatic leader. Instead, a collective identity slowly emerges. Often this happens among professional colleagues who experience a growing sense of alienation from the mainstream, a restlessness or uneasiness with the privileged ways of doing things within their field.
I have found this to be true from my experiences listening to people talk about writing groups, or reading about them on-line. True, except when a charismatic person either organizes a group round themself, or when a charismatic alpha joins a group and takes it over. Then all the dynamics change.
Here’s a quote from the introduction, when she lays out her thesis:
My experience in writing groups also confirms my belief that anticipation shapes the creation of my text. When I write with a particular reader in mind, I make changes, large and small. I find myself anticipating questions, bracing against challenges, accommodating interests.
How many have been, perhaps in early years, set back in development by the beta-reader who wants to take over your brain and have you write to their taste? That ‘anticipation’ is a powerful motivator: though writers profess to love writing for its own sake, the prospect of being read can certainly keep the butt in chair and the pen in hand.
On the question of influence:
In Critical Terms for Literary Study, a standard reference text, Louis A. Renz explains that literary influence is generally discerned by “spotting certain thematic likenesses or disclosing related verbal pattersn ‘ and on the next page, For the student of literary influences, noting resemblances between texts is just the beginning. Having found similarities, small and large, and demonstrated that they are in some way substantial and significant, the next task is to establish causation.
She then gets to Karen Burke LeFevre, who asserts that “writers often invent by involving other people” and defines the roles of participants of writing groups as Resonators, opponents, editors, and collaborators. The collaboration can be the expected type–two people working on a single text–but collaboration can also be implied by the daily walks that, for example, Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway took every day, though one would be hard put to find two writers whose work seems more radically different. But at some level these two were collaborating because they were bouncing ideas off one another–resonating, editing, and opposing ideas if not actual text. They were a writer’s group of two.
So here are my questions: if you’re a writer, do you belong to a group, no matter how informal? If so, how much of your motivation comes anticipation of your group reading your stuff? Is it the group reading it (pretty much guaranteed) or the (more hypothetical) readership Out There (unless you are in the habit of selling everything you write) that keeps your butt in the chair? Or do you write in total isolation? And finally, when you look back over drafts, changes, polishes, levels of learning leaps, how much of that can you trace to the influence of the group–do you think you’d be where you were, doing what you’re doing now, sans the group experience?
Mallory and his life: Glyer makes it clear that the literary world then discussed, as people do now, what exactly was meant by “rape” which could mean abduction, it could mean consensual sex but without consent of the female’s guardians. As for Mallory and violence, who could be surprised after reading the text, in which when he describes exactly what happens in those brutal jousts, and how guys would fight, lose their breath, their wits from the heat and thirst, etc, as hacked bits of armor fly all over? It’s very clear he’s seen it, and some of the internal details it pretty clear he’s been in it.