In the "Interchapter: A Manifesto," included in The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom asserts that "True poetic history is the story of how poets as poets have suffered other poets, just as any true biography is the story of how anyone suffered his own family--or his own displacement of family into lovers and friends." In using the word "poets" Bloom does not confine himself to those writers of lyric poetry whom we now designate with the term but certainly includes writers or fiction and drama as well, all those writers who belong to what we now call collectively "literature," and thus by "poetic history" Bloom implicitly invokes literary history as a whole. This is probably the most direct explanation of what Bloom means by the "anxiety of influence" to be found in the book, and while it might even seem somewhat flippant, unpacking this statement could perhaps help clarify the insight into the nature of literary influence that is likely to remain Bloom's most lasting contribution to literary criticism, while also suggesting a view of literary history that perhaps cuts across the grain of most current notions of writing as a literary vocation that is itself embedded in what is called a literary "community."
The "other poets" that any individual poet "suffers" are what Bloom calls "precursor poets," those poets who are in fact most important in motivating the current poet to "overcome" the influence of the precursor poet. The attempt to do this does indeed produce "anxiety," not in the poet him/herself but manifest in the poems produced in the attempt. To say the younger poet (an "ephebe," in Bloom's parlance) suffers the precursor is to say both that the ephebe feels an intense rivalry (again, not so much a personal rivalry but one rooted in the latecomer poet's anxiety about the "originality" of his/her own work) but also that there is a kind of suffering involved in the "displacement" of the precursor, who in the poet's development is as important as family is for most people. Ultimately the poet recognizes the significance of the precursor's example (although elsewhere Bloom notes Wallace Stevens's reluctance to acknowledge the influence of Whitman), but also the imperative to break free.
Literary history--at least at the level of the time-tested and canonical--is thus the history of this struggle among "strong poets," the writers whose own achievement can't finally be separated from their simultaneous dependence on and resistance to the achievements of their eminent predecessors. In short, writers who want to be taken seriously can't ignore writing from the past because writing in the present inextricably emerges from the writing of the past, giving substance to the claim that the origin of a poem is always another poem. Writers find themselves within a "tradition" they can't finally evade, although in most cases they don't wish to evade it, but instead to transform it, at least to the extent that the tradition now can accommodate their own work. According to T. S. Eliot, the tradition itself is also thus transformed, but in Bloom's analysis this is not the orderly, "organic" process Eliot described, and "tradition" is certainly not the near-devotional object some of Eliot's followers want it to be. Instead it is fraught with conflict and unacknowledged envy.
It is also, of course, a conflict that arises from intense admiration. One attempts to "overcome" an influence only because the influence is real, because the poet and the work in question has had a profound effect on the would-be poet. But would-be poets are always going to be "anxious" in their admiration because the very qualities they admire pose the greatest threat to their own projects. How can those projects succeed if "other poets" have already made all the best moves and come upon the best subjects?
While Bloom is advancing a Freudian narrative in which quasi-psychological forces are manifested in the relationship between literary works, not a direct Freudian analysis of poets themselves, surely the notion of "rivalry" among writers is neither far-fetched nor confined to the use of images and tropes within writing itself. Certainly Bloom's focus on the anxiety of influence as a material textual feature is the more interesting application of psychoanalytic theory, providing as it does a concrete interpretive tool, but isn't it likely that writers view their own contemporaries not just as colleagues (perhaps not even colleagues) but as antagonists of a sort, potential threats to their artistic visions and literary reputations? How easy is it for a writer to rise above competitive impulses that to some extent seem only natural?
These questions for me are prompted in part by a current literary culture that seems devoted to creating an impression of great collegiality among writers. The most immediate and influential form of literary criticism--book reviewing--is dominated by novelists and poets, some of whom are also perceptive critics but many of whom have been assigned to write reviews under the apparent assumption that fiction writers are best situated to judge other fiction, poets other poetry. This assumption is dubious at best, but the primary effect of this practice is that most reviews dispense abundant praise, often long on superlatives and short on real analysis.
In addition, almost all books now come heavily "blurbed" by other writers, who often seem determined to outdo each other in the rhetorical excess with which they praise their fellow authors. The literary corners of social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook liberally engage in various digital versions of handclapping for writers especially admired and frequently feature explicit appeals to "community" among writers, as if literature was a civic organization, or a team sport in which one pledges one's mutual support for teammates. Perhaps it is in this context that we can understand the controversy over "negative reviews": Some writers, and many critics, fail to fully join the team, venturing to question a team member's accomplishment and disrupting group camaraderie.
In surveying literary history, it is hard to identify another period in which serious writers expected to be, or indicated any desire to be, part of a literary community. Paris after World War I is often discussed as the setting for a gathering of like-minded modernists, but Hemingway's A Moveable Feast ought to be evidence enough that whatever friendships that might have formed at this time were laced with barely suppressed resentment and condescension, examples of writers suffering other writers. It seems to me that the push for "community" among writers is a direct function of the "program era" in American literature, the relocation of literary life to the academy, where it is administered in creative writing programs, where other writers are indeed colleagues, and where the wheels driving publication and recognition are greased by the spread of literary magazines sponsored by creative writing programs themselves and the substitution of tenure for commercial success. Under these circumstances, it becomes much easier to think of other writers as fellow members of a community (the community of creative writing teachers and students) rather than rivals, although also much easier as well to write safe but duly crafted, convention-approved fiction and poetry rather than challenge the hegemony of craft and convention by following inspiration where it leads.
Certainly at a time when literature occupies an ever-diminishing portion of public attention and offers an ever-diminishing prospect of providing a livelihood, the removal of writers to the security of academe and the rewards of community was and is understandable and perhaps inevitable. But ultimately this model makes no allowance for the more unruly impulses that kindle the imagination and that make the most profound kind of creativity possible. As Bloom says elsewhere in The Anxiety of Influence,
It does happen that one poet influences another, or more precisely, that one poet’s poems influence the poems of the other, through a generosity of the spirit, even a shared generosity. But our easy idealism is out of place here. Where generosity is involved, the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.
Today's literary culture of community doesn't much account for "misprision," or creative misinterpretation, because it doesn't really have much room for interpretation and judgment at all. All writing is taken with the same congratulatory enthusiasm, allowed to interpret itself through reviews stuffed with plot summary or overwritten superlatives. Program-era fiction gave rise to the vacuous marketing term "literary fiction," which is mostly applied to the kind of proficiently-written but uninspiring stories and novels issued by the writers within creative writing departments needing tenure or first publication. To judge by the blurbs, the tweets, and the tumblr posts these writers use to promote this work, they are reasonably satisfied with the results, but we could wonder whether some of them, perhaps among the more ambitious, don't finally feel a crippling constraint in all such enforced "generosity of spirit."
"Literary citizenship" is a concept that many writers apparently take quite seriously, as it has evolved from a metaphorical notion that writers should advocate on behalf of literature generally to a quasi-literal requirement that they be good citizens in the "literary community" at large, whose well-being they are expected to consider.. According to Lori A. May in her book The Write Crowd: Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (2015),
Literary citizenship takes the power of the individual and puts it to use in fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community for the benefit of others. The concept is to pay kindness and skill forward, to offer something to the community so that others may learn, engage, and grow from combined efforts. And the possibilities for how that is accomplished are wide and varied, both in effort and in outcome. At the heart of literary citizenship, though, is one constant: contributing something to the literary world outside of one's own immediate needs.
The biggest motivating factor in the rise of literary citizenship as an ideal to which writers should aspire is likely to be found in that "constant" May identifies in the final sentence. "One's own immediate needs" in the literary world, are of course, to be published, to find readers, if lucky to make a career of writing. At a time when it has become harder to do all of those things (and when there even more writers trying to do them), "literary citizenship" and the "community" work together as appealing alternatives to the publish-or-perish ethos that dominated not just academic publishing but in effect all of publishing and the old "literary world" associated with it. While "contributing something" to the community free of self-interest is ostensibly the goal of literary citizenship, surely the ultimate benefit of such a contribution redounds to the contributor in some way (tangible or intangible), or it simply wouldn't be worth making. One's "immediate needs" aren't necessarily identical with one's long-term hopes.
Considered most generously, the creation of community through literary citizenship is a way of preserving a space for literature that isn't dependent on (although ultimately by no means completely separate from) a hyperactive capitalist economy that has so distorted social and commercial values as to otherwise leave little room for such a relatively nonprofitable enterprise as literary writing, except at the most crass and mercantile levels of the "book business." From this perspective, cultivating the literary garden as a whole is the only way to ensure that the garden survives to provide a spot for one's own harvest.
But while such an effort to affirm literary value for its own sake is both commendable and necessary, how many would-be literary citizens really are as dedicated to Literature in the abstract as the rhetoric of literary citizenship would have them be? Are there many who would be willing to cultivate the garden even if it wasn't going to be open to their own work, after all? Perhaps I am overly cynical in suspecting that the ranks of good literary citizens would thin out appreciably under those circumstances, that Literature as a sovereign territory worth defending would be a less compelling cause if one's loyalty to it were so purely conceptual. But even if what might be gained through exemplary literary citizenship is not careerist in the narrowly commercial sense, the urge for recognition and status can't help but dilute the purity of motive that supposedly underlies the practice of literary citizenship.
That in itself does not invalidate the call for literary citizenship. Human motives can never be pure, and none of the strategies for manifesting one's citizenship described by May--attending readings, starting a journal, writing reviews, joining literary organizations, etc.--are in themselves at all objectionable (although it is certainly possible to question the reliance on the Reading as the most visible representation of the "literary world"). There is a point, however, beyond which the breadth of responsibilities May suggests the writer might shoulder actually seems to appease the very market forces that literary citizenship is supposed to counteract. Corporate publishers have already contracted out most marketing and advertising to writers themselves, who must relentlessly promote their own work through book touring and maintaining a social media "presence." Should writers aid and abet this process by voluntarily enabling the system in the name of literary citizenship? As Becky Tuch has written on this subject, "Today’s writers are expected to do more marketing work than ever before while not expecting much in the way of compensation or benefits. It’s what we are being 'trained' to do."'
If literary citizenship "takes the power of the individual and puts it to use" on behalf of all writers, what about the much greater power of publishers and publicists, who are surely in a much better position to be "fostering, sustaining, and engaging with the literary community"? Is the push for literary citizenship another way of acknowledging that the era of the publisher has come to an end? Is the logical extension of literary citizenship a literary world dominated by self-publishing as well as self-promotion, which becomes the only way to do business in books? Although, to again assume the sincerity of those advocating for a writing community built around literary citizenship, presumably "business" would not be the center of activity: payment comes in "kindness and skill," receipt of which cumulatively allows everyone to "learn, engage, and grow."
But would real growth actually occur if all that was "paid forward" was "kindness"? Would the "skill" also offered in payment include a critical skill, an ability to honestly assess what a writer has produced, even when that assessment might be negative? Is literary citizenship specifically about ensuring a certain kind of "literary life," as May's subtitle suggests, or should it also encourage a serious engagement with literary works that in taking them seriously accepts that some literary efforts are more successful than others? In the literary world that emerges from the congruence of idealism and the obsolescence of the old publishing model, will there be a role for literary critics, who sometimes are accused of something less than kindness, but from whom much can often be learned? It is hard to imagine that a "literary" culture (or "community") with any credibility and integrity could be sustained if frank but impartial criticism was unwelcome.
It is not exactly the case that readers seem to be unwelcome in the literary community as described in The Write Crowd, but as the title suggests, literary citizenship is practiced primarily by writers, although finding ways of "reaching out" to readers is certainly encouraged. Indeed, in addition to the decline of publisher support, an underlying assumption of both May's book and the appeal to citizenship and community more generally is that there aren't enough readers to go around and thus writers need to support each other, offering themselves as especially dutiful readers who will not just content themselves with the reading experience but will supplement it through recommendations on social media, reviews, and attendance at author events. Writers act as readers on steroids, giving the literary community a semblance of vitality, even when most writers struggle to find readers for whom reading is not so freighted with external obligation.
What about the apostate, the writer who resists the call to literary citizenship, either through obstinacy or through a sincere belief that the writer's job is to write, not to network? Although May frequently insists that the writer's first responsibility is indeed to his/her own writing, those who might deny the value of literary citizenship when it is made into a de facto requirement of living a "writing life" would surely provoke resentment for not carrying his/her weight in propping up the remaining structures that make a literary life still marginally possible. More importantly, what about the true literary apostate, who violates community norms, who produces work even the best literary citizens might have trouble celebrating, or even understanding? What if the demand for literary citizenship had been made of Samuel Beckett or William S. Burroughs (or even a more conventional curmudgeonly type such as, say, Philip Larkin)?
The work of Beckett and Burroughs was surely abrasive (to some, incomprehensible) enough to its original audience that, absent some expression of solidarity with their fellow writers by each of them, it was almost foreordained to at first be rejected or ignored (or both) by the literary community of the time, however that would have been defined. Perhaps we feel that now the more self-identified literary community is inclusive enough that iconoclastic writers such as these would be acknowledged. Still, it seems to me that the inevitable tendency of a "literary community" expecting its members to be "good literary citizens" is an at least implicit regulation of what counts as worth supporting, what can be recognized as "literature" in the first place. Bad literary citizens are going to continue to disregard the exhortations to blend harmoniously into the growing crowd of writers, but will also manage to write what turns out to be great works of literature, nevertheless.