“Melville Never Wrote Me A Choose Your Own Adventure Book”: Writers on their “Lowbrow” Influences
Like most writers, I have a mental list of literary influences that I can, robot-like, regurgitate during any roundtable, interview, or conversation: StevensWoolfCalvinoNabokovBeckettDickinsonShakespeare. I’ve got the top five list, the top ten list, the top twenty list, and beyond that I could drone on for ages if anyone was bored enough to listen to a verbal card catalog.
But here’s the thing — if you’re asking about my influences to get at why I write, or what makes my writing different, you’re asking the wrong question. Sure — since I started reading what I’d call “literature,” the highbrow stuff — those writers have been instrumental in shaping my style. But I have a theory: the thing that makes you a unique writer hasn’t got so much to do with your influences as it does with how you became a writer in the first place. I think your preferences — your obsessions — come just as much from the first sorts of things you consumed and were passionate about. Whether that’s pop music, comics, “lowbrow” fiction, soap operas, or anything else, the thing that matters most is what started you writing stories. And so to dismiss the lowbrow is to dismiss the entry point, the gates that opened for so many of us at some magical place and time and drew us or dragged us or danced us into this ridiculous passion for making stuff up.
For me, that was horror fiction — those puffy shiny paperbacks where the authors’ names were way bigger than their titles. DEAN KOONTZ! STEPHEN KING! CHRISTOPHER PIKE! I devoured this stuff, staying up late reading under the covers and giving myself delicious mini-heart attacks before going to bed at night. Before I read horror, I never knew one could be so absolutely consumed by something so scary, so dark — and suddenly, I had permission to write about the things that everybody fears.
For me, that was horror fiction — those puffy shiny paperbacks where the authors’ names were way bigger than their titles. DEAN KOONTZ! STEPHEN KING! CHRISTOPHER PIKE!
But this could just be me, right? So I talked to some fellow writers to try out my theory on them. And I was surprised to find how many writers had strong opinions on this topic. Jamie Iredell, author of I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, approached writing along the same genre trail I did. “I was also a huge Stephen King fan,” he says. “I loved the Dark Tower series, and those are a big influence on this trilogy of novels I’ve written/am writing.” Matt Bell, author of In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, says, “I was a writer-in-residence at a private high school a few years ago, and they asked me to give a talk about how I became a writer. For forty-five minutes, I told students about the Choose Your Own Adventure books, about Dungeons and Dragons, and about computer games, especially the old text adventures from twenty years ago. Those were the things that made me realize that stories were not set down in the stone of ink on paper: They were malleable, retellable, able to be shaped by both the teller and the reader or participant, and I would not be a writer without those experiences.”
Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth, is known for creating absolutely immersive, living worlds in her short stories. So I was fascinated when she told me, “I did not really read at all until I was 19 or 20, when I discovered ‘contemporary fiction.’ I did, however, love watching TV and reading The National Enquirer and making up elaborate imaginative worlds about all the tiny people living inside my computer… And all of that was as influential as anything else.” And for Erika Wurth, whose Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend was recently published, that lowbrow reading wasn’t just a gateway, it was an escape. “You know how there are all kinds of kids in different social strata in high school and there are like three or four kids that are completely weirdo dorks, and nobody will talk to them? I was one of those guys, and so I read under the display case because it was harder for people to find me there and try to hurt me. My favorite author at that time was Piers Anthony because his books had dragons, and everyone had a special talent and it was all about escaping from this earth.”
The idea of escape also resonates with Molly Gaudry, author of We Take Me Apart, a verse novel filled with references to fairy tales and folk tales. “In high school and college,” she says, “I began to turn toward more ‘literary’ novels, of course, but I have a serious soft spot for those stories and writers that took me away, got me away from where I was, and gave me somewhere else to be. I think, really, this is all I want to do, too, as a writer — to give readers somewhere else to be, if they need it, even if only for a little while.”
Sometimes what we choose to consume when we’re young is all about finding out who we are — about shaping ourselves, and learning to see the ways we fit or don’t fit into the world. Chris Terry writes, “I came of age in the early ’90s, a golden age for black pop culture. Hip-hop was huge and new and commercially and artistically viable. Multiple movies and even some TV shows depicted the black experience. I’m half white, and spent most of my adolescence in a predominately white suburb. So, ‘In Living Color,’ Juice, A Tribe Called Quest and The Pharcyde were a way for me to access a part of my own culture that I didn’t have ready exposure to. In some ways, I learned to be a black man by watching Boomerang and listening to Ice Cube.” And this in turn shaped Terry’s writing, including his debut novel, Zero Fade. “It’s about a thirteen year old boy named Kevin, who is assembling his idea of masculinity through pop culture…I wanted my young character to see pop culture as a chance to form an identity by aligning himself with something that is pre-approved and already in place.”
“I aspire to write ‘great books,’ but great books are not at all what made me want to write,” says Mike Meginnis, author of Fat Man and Little Boy. “Some of my most formative early reading experiences were apocalyptic Christian YA fiction from my church’s lending library.”
It seems ridiculous, on the face of it, that writers could learn their craft at the doorstep of writing or culture that might appear inartful, inelegant, or lack complexity. And yet it makes perfect sense. These books are popular not because of their sentences, but because of their storytelling. And isn’t that the first thing every writer has to learn, regardless of medium or genre? “I think that stuff has more useful lessons for most writers than, say, Joyce,” notes Meginnis. “Popular ‘garbage’ can show you how to offer an audience a pleasurable, sometimes even satisfying interaction — can even provide the foundations necessary to earn more experimental styles and structures.”
These books are popular not because of their sentences, but because of their storytelling. And isn’t that the first thing every writer has to learn, regardless of medium or genre?
Erin Fitzgerald, co-author of Shut Up/Look Pretty, agrees. “I’ve learned so much from soap operas. The balance of plot and character and presentation, every single weekday, for an audience that’s one of the most easily bored. Everyone should have to write a Friday cliffhanger at least once.”
“Romance novels, horror novels, thrillers. Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, everything V.C. Andrews wrote, Danielle Steel: I devoured it all,” says Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth. “Those ‘trashy’ books taught me how to write story, character, and created my lifelong need for drama, conflict, and my belief that every story, no matter what genre or style, needs to make the reader feel as if a lot is ‘at stake.’” And Peter Tieryas, author of Bald New World, says, “I devour and gorge on lowbrow entertainment, from the maligned Waterworld and the original Dawn of the Dead, to comics like Legends of the Dark Knight and X-Force, to K-pop and Tupac, and of course video games. They play with the tropes, or establish all new ones, and being unhinged from traditional restrictions, push the medium, teaching me that I can do the same.”
Matthew Salesses, who wrote I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying, points out how he’s used Korean soap operas as a teaching tool. “A couple of years ago, I was asked to write a serialized novel. I was watching a lot of Korean dramas at the time — these are romantic melodrama mini-series — and I said I could try to write something playing off of the structure and themes of a typical K drama. That is, 16 illustrated “episodes” of romantic intrigue and magic (this meant I could also claim “research” while watching). I learned a ton about structure, plot, symbolic action, melodrama in the original sense of the word, and so on. I recently taught a class on ‘symbolic action’ where I had my students write down every action and its significance in a 5-minute segment.”
Consuming lowbrow cultural products can even prime us for the later literary influences we admire and emulate. Certainly, my early fascination with horror writers led me to a lifelong obsession with the darker side of human nature explored in much of literature. It’s not a terribly long leap (in my mind) from Carrie to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, or from The Stand to Slaughterhouse Five. Andrea Kneeland, author of the forthcoming How to Pose for Hustler, agrees. “I found Lydia Millet’s Omnivores by chance when I was around twenty, and it remains one of my all time favorites and maybe the most influential book that I ever read,” she says. “But I feel like those books before — that mix of King and Joyce Carol Oates and classic European fairy tales, they primed me for it. The same elements were there in Omnivores, just put together in a different, fascinating way.”
Robert Kloss, author of The Alligators of Abraham, says the same was true for him. “I grew up on monster movies and horror films, and I’m still drawn to narrative works elevated from pulp origins. It’s clear to me my aesthetic was shaped by the grotesques in Touch of Evil and the language and horror of Blood Meridian and the menace and confusion of Kubrick’s The Shining or Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf.” And Matt Bell says, “I love Melville but Melville never wrote me a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And I needed that experience first if I was ever going to get to Melville.”
Matt Bell says, “I love Melville but Melville never wrote me a Choose Your Own Adventure book. And I needed that experience first if I was ever going to get to Melville.”
Not every writer I spoke to felt that so-called “lowbrow” culture had been an influence on their work. Some writers simply told me they didn’t have anything to add because they’d never really read or consumed much they considered lowbrow, or pop culture just didn’t have a place in the work they produce. But Porochista Khakpour, author of The Last Illusion, had a particularly fascinating ambivalence toward the lowbrow, reflecting her own experiences as an immigrant. “I was a young Iranian immigrant wanting to become an American writer at age four! I remember begging my parents to send me to private school, which they could not afford, and I found my education at my public school to be insufficient, so I decided to become self-taught. In elementary school I’d go to the library and check out stacks of Shakespeare. In junior high, I tried to read Sartre and all the existentialists. By high school I became obsessed with Faulkner and read everything he wrote. In my social circle people read Sweet Valley High, Babysitters Club, Stephen King, and all this stuff I would pretend to also like but secretly hated. I regarded them with a lot of suspicion — felt very wary of them, as if they would hold me back. I had my own path and agenda.”
I discovered, as I talked to lots of writers, that the vocabulary of the lowbrow almost universally reflects a kind of throwaway culture: garbage, disposable, trash. Yet it’s clear many of us have never tossed out these first and primary influences — they are anything but disposable when we look back at where it all began. Whether we writers actively avoided, sought out, or just plain knew nothing else, it seems what we consumed of the lowbrow world of literature, television, films, video games, and other pop culture has had significant influence on an awful lot of us. When we were young, many of us sought pleasure in the simplest kinds of stories, wherever we found them. And we still seek to tell the best stories, though now perhaps through the influence filters of Faulkner, of Hemingway, of Kafka or Calvino or Alice Munro. But at the end of the day, we’re all of us storytellers, trying to retell that first and perfect tale that started it all.