The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
At the beginning of my reading career, I got a lot of recommendations from The New York Times, but that’s gone done in recent years, because I now have a thriving community of readers all around me tossing recommendations my way. But I still read the book section from time and time, and that’s where I found a review for The Ecstasy of Influence. I’d never heard of Jonathan Lethem in my life—although Motherless Brooklyn, one of his novels, sounds very familiar—but I’m always fond of authors examining “influence”, because it can lead to discussion about fannish experience, whether or not the author names them as such. As the summer began, I dove in—but I think I hit a roadblock pretty quickly…
The Ecstasy of Influence collects Jonathem Lethem’s writings over the past fifteen or so years, including the titular “Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagarism”. Here, Lethem examines the role of pop culture in the life of the novelist, interviews music legends, and even writes a few short pieces of fiction. …look, collections are ridiculously easy to summarize, okay?
When I picked up The Ecstasy of Influence at the public library, I thought I was going to end up reading something like Michael Chabon’s collections of essays, just more focused on the intersection of pop culture and literary culture. For the most part (about seventy percent, if you want to get into numbers), Lethem gets there—one essay, “Against “Pop” Culture” ends with Lethem dismissing the idea of roping pop culture off from the rest of culture. It’s all culture, he argues, and I absolutely wanted to cheer. Lethem’s done his time in more geek and fannish-oriented contexts—one essay is called “What I Learned at the Science Fiction Convention” and he’s an avid follower of Philip K. Dick—and he certainly believes that he’s a full-fledged fan. Nowhere is this more evident than the brilliant “The Genius of James Brown”, which is possibly the best piece in the collection. And yet… Lethem strikes me as, on some level, still uncomfortable with the space science fiction and, to a lesser extent, fandom occupies; at one point, he refers to “the values-suspended vale of fandom”, which made me laugh out loud, as there are some fandoms (including ones Lethem likes) that are known for hating everything. Later, he ponders if comics just can’t be adapted to screen because of the nature of the medium—never mind, of course, the concept of comics as storyboard. These are small moments, I concur, but are explicit examples of the anxiety Lethem seems to feel in his position; after all, he even refers to getting Dick into the Library of America as “gentrification”. Even while he’s championing it, he seems uncomfortable with it.
But the titular essay bugged me for different reasons. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism” makes a case for remix culture by explaining its position, and then ending with a citation by citation breakdown of that essay to show how we all remix the sources we’re given. It’s an interesting experiment, but where it fails for me is the anti-copyright sentiment of of the piece. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinions and he does have some good points about how the system is broken, but, again, he seems uncomfortable. As he rolls his eyes at the conflation of piracy with theft and the idea of culture as a single person’s property, he asks readers not to pirate his own work during his lifetime. Piracy is a personal pet peeve of mine; while Lethem invokes the usual idea of greedy corporations, Down in Front, a podcast staffed by guys who make their living working on films, has, what I feel, is a much more even-handed take on the whole matter. Lethem himself has a response to the essay, the tepid “The Afterlife of ‘Ecstasy’/Somatics of Influence”, but that’s more of a shrug then anything else.
Like most collections, it’s uneven, and I found my attention wandering at certain points. Sometimes, it’s just hard to muster up sympathy for a guy still defending an angry letter he sent to a critic who didn’t like his novel. (The review, Lethem claims, was in bad faith, not covering the key points of his novel, which just makes me look askance at this fellow’s view on other people’s readings of his own work.) But Lethem is talented, and that’s nowhere more evident than the pieces about music, his one true love. “The Genius of James Brown” and “Dylan Interview” were both published in Rolling Stone, so the audience curtails Lethem’s more flighty impulses. The man can write about music, although his pieces on the Go-Betweens rubs me the wrong way; watching the band on a bad night, he assumes the female singer is using men in the audience to make her bandmates jealous (based off his personal canon that she’s dated both of them) instead of storming off to get a drink. (To be fair, Lethem is pretty good about women—he details a fantastic moment where his high school buddy draws his personal female fantasy, and Lethem corrects it into something that looks like an actual woman. It spooks them both.) If you love music as much as Lethem does, I recommend renting this collection to read these pieces; otherwise… there’s better and more accessible discourse available.
Bottom line: In The Ecstasy of Influence, Lethem champions fan culture while seeming uncomfortable with the position it holds—and the reductive anti-copyright stance of the titular essay did not further endear him to me, although it’s a useful experiment in form. However, the music essays are a wonder to behold. Eh.
I rented this book from the public library.