This curious book contains two dozen articles, by writers of sharply varying accomplishment and reputation, all more or less addressed to the question of how it is that they got to be the writers they are. Its editor, Stephen Berg, notes in his introduction that "the question of literary influence is at the center of critical thinking these days" and then explains the origins of his book:
"Well, then, why not ask a range of fiction writers, poets, and essayists to write about what they believe has influenced their work? That would not only reveal each writer's own special way of seeing influence; it would provide an adventure for readers whose interest in a writer's work is also an interest in the writer--how he wrote a particular story, novel, poem, critical piece; why he writes the way he does; what experiences have made him the writer that he is. And, as literary criticism, it might break fresh ground at the source and give readers a sense of the variety, the personal unfixed truths, the connections at the heart of a poet's or novelist's work, and point up the vanity of generalizing too far beyond the evidence of the writer's own testimony."
It's an interesting idea, which makes it all the more unfortunate that so few of the pieces that Berg ultimately assembled live up to his hopes for them. The book is a mishmash of the engaging and the irritating, the forthright and the obscure, the instructive and the self-serving. Some of the pieces speak to the question of influence so indirectly that their inclusion in the collection is itself a mystery; these tend to be the ones that ramble on at greatest length. The best and most useful are those by writers--in particular David Bradley, Raymond Carver and Cynthia Ozick--who stick to the subject in question and get directly to the point.
One contributor who does both is Gilbert Sorrentino, who says of that subject: "It interests me only insofar as it allows me to ask a question of myself: Why these particular influences? What I am trying to get at is this: Does a writer choose his influences, or are they, so to speak, lying in wait for him, so that when encountered they are seen to be destined for him? I think this must be the case, and if it is, it means that one's influences are deeper than the 'merely' literary; are, indeed, at the core of one's life."
It is a point emphasized by the most thoughtful and revealing of these essays. Carver tells how, as a young parent, he was forced by the demands of child-raising to limit himself "to writing things I knew I could finish in one sitting, two sittings at the most"; the influence that drove him to the short story, an influence over which he had almost no control, was necessity. Reynolds Price describes how as a young reader he encountered the inescapable Ernest Hemingway and discovered him to be "a strong force in both my own early awareness of a need to write and my early sense of how to write." And David Bradley describes his visits with his father, a minister and editor, to a printer named George:
"During the visits to the printer, my father and George would be closeted in the little cubbyhole that served as George's office, while I had the run of the chapel. It was on one of those occasions, I believe, that any chance I would follow in the family footsteps was lost. For on this one day, while George and my father muttered of ems and ens, one of the linotype operators paused in his work and invited me to write my name on a scrap of paper, and after I had done so, let me watch as he punched my name out in hot lead. I think that was the moment when my personal die was cast."
That is a lovely image, and a convincing one, and I wish there were more like it in this collection. The pieces worth reading, in addition to those already mentioned, are by Max Apple, Carolyn Forche', Tess Gallagher, Leonard Michaels and Dave Smith; each addresses the ostensible subject of the book and is appealingly written. But by and large "In Praise of What Persists" is a textbook illustration of the tendency of too many contemporary writers to speak to their inner muses rather than to the perplexed reader in whose hands the book rests.