I just read a thoughtful and humorous on the anxiety of influence article by Sara Crosby in the Believer magazine. Crosby writes about how for many months she felt inadequate and redundant as a writer because the novelist/essayist/all-around-introspective-guy Johnathan Franzen seemed to better capture her own adolescent background and the adult emotions that frame it in his New Yorker pieces.
While Crosby and Franzen both grew up in Saint Louis suburbs and coincidentally share a number of similar experiences, I think most people– or at the least urban, white, liberal, contemplaters– personally respond to Franzen writing. His most recent collection of essays, The Discomfort Zone, of which most of Crosby’s correlating experiences can be found, is not so much about events. The events in the book are mundane. It’s more about Franzen’s feelings of inadequacy, which would be an annoyingly self-absorbed topic (consider that Franzen seems to be handsome, respected, successful, intelligent, normal) if he wasn’t so eloquent in describing it all. So most of use share Crosby’s problem with Franzen or any other accomplished, talented person in our field: he feels inadequate same way she does, but he’s exceptionally better at it insofar as receives money and acclaim writing about it. And while Crosby finds passing validation from this, she also finds that her material is used up.
If we think of literature as a encyclopedia of society and human experience, the passages on disappointment, dissatisfaction, or any social state fill up quickly. But emotions and experiences are never fully defined, and so art is in finding how our influences and experiences change.