By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Given that 2005 was a banner year for literate pop, one during which the rich narratives of musicians like the Hold Steady and the Mountain Goats earned accolades in The New Yorker, and Chronicles Vol. 1, the first installment of Bob Dylan’s memoirs, got nominated for a National Book Award, the L.A. Weekly thought it was high time to discuss the trend toward literary pop and pop literature. To that end, we convened a roundtable (albeit an electronically mediated one) consisting of novelists Rick Moody and Jonathan Lethem and musician John Darnielle. All are known for bridging the worlds of music and literature and for helping to erase the false boundaries dividing them.
To get things started, we posed a kind of theological question: Does your taste in music mark you as a Dylanist or an Enoid? To translate from music geek into English: a Dylanist (after Bob Dylan) would be a hot-blooded, essentially literary explorer, while an Enoid (after producer and Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno) would be more concerned with the sonic challenges of texture, form and space. As you might expect, our panel was seldom at a loss for words, and the music never stopped playing in their heads.
RICK MOODY:The question of influence is not unknown on the book-tour circuit, and it’s a question I rarely answer the same way twice. I like the Bloomian notion that whatever the real influence is, it’s always being concealed. I mean, I love Montaigne, but am I telling the truth when I say I was influenced by him? I dunno. Maybe I am not gifted enough. The question of cross-genre influences is even more slippery. Can I be influenced by Dylan? I certainly played the hell out of Blood on the Tracks while writing Purple America.
As far as Eno goes, I remember thinking, when I was 17 or so, and so besotted with Before and After Scienceand Music for Airports, that my two modes were really trance/minimalist and Old Timey. I liked experimental music, and I liked the oldest music imaginable. These things are probably allied. I do like music that drones a lot (LaMonte Young, Ingram Marshall, Carl Stone, Stars of the Lid, Godspeed, etc.). And then I like a lot of Appalachian music. And very early acoustic blues. Skip James, right now, is one of my favorite musicians. Dock Boggs. A lot of that Alan Lomax stuff.
JOHN DARNIELLE: To me, “musical influences” are so much less important than literary ones. My chief sources are: Joan Didion, the best writer alive and the most interesting person on the subject of what narratives are and how they work or don’t; Faulkner, though it’s been so long since I read him that the main memory for me is the florid descriptive technique, with which I have a complicated relationship; John Berryman; Robbe-Grillet lately but hugely; also recently wielding a big ol’ influence stick is William Gass’ The Tunnel; Seneca’s plays. The list is long, but I feel I’d be a poor sport if I didn’t actually name some musicians/lyricists whose craft I envy and whose phrases I’ll corrupt and steal: Nick Cave, but not recent-vintage Nick Cave; Lou Reed; Mexican singer Ana Gabriel just for purity of tone, transparency of craft, overall awesomeness; Jimmy Reed; Iron Maiden; Jeffrey Lee Pierce; Randy Newman, certainly; Steely Dan. These last two write very complex stuff which I couldn’t hope to match, but again, the main thing for me is what’s going on lyrically, and Donald Fagen and Randy Newman both do some really gorgeous method-acting, and neither one’s tempted to wink at the camera too much, if ever — the most important thing when you’re adopting a persona.
JONATHAN LETHEM: Camden Joy once made me very happy by saying that if my collected writings were a band, they’d be Yo La Tengo, and that thrilled me because it felt right (if you grant that I’m as good as YLT). Like them, I’m openly aware of standing on the shoulders of giants. Like them, I make sporadic use of Dylanesque personal gestures and Enoesque (Enoid?) self-effacing experiments, but don’t lock down into either mode. The comparison felt like the most flattering one I could consent to. I mean, if someone called me the Dylan of novel writing I’d be flattered, but forced to shout back, “You’re a liar!”
Like Rick, I listen to music while I write. And sometimes I’m certain of its influence. Some of my fiction’s influences are worn on its sleeve, but others are quieter — the John Cale song “Dying on the Vine” was the emotional keystone for Girl in Landscape. Other times the music’s just making me happier, less lonely, and therefore likelier to stay at my desk.
My persistent feeling about “influence,” though, is that I’m never not entering a room where the good conversation’s been going on long before I got there. I have a philosopher friend who describes her work as “filling in a small quadrant of philosophical space” — and by that she means one that is in some way already implicit by the presence of other filled-in quadrants but has not yet itself been filled in. This description sounds to me like 90 percent of what I do: explain, by my writing, how I saw a relationship between two different things that excited me, one that might not have been visible — or indeed existed — until I made my “explanation.”
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