Contemporary Writers and Their Old School Counterparts


This week, we read an article over at The Guardian which suggested that the “anxiety of influence” is waning — that is, that writers publishing today are no longer as closely influenced by the literary canon as they once were, and instead look to their contemporaries. Well, considering that this conclusion was the result of a mathematical study based on the number of “content-free” words like ‘of’, ‘at’ and ‘by,’ we’re not sure how much water it holds, but it inspired us to think about some modern writers who do seem to be carrying the torch for their old school counterparts, whether in topic, thematic style, or character. After all, the past never really goes away — especially in literature.

Karen Russell and Flannery O’Connor

As far as we’re concerned, Karen Russell is like a modern Flannery O’Connor if her mother had raised her on fantasy novels and a little too much sugar. All those lush and ominous Southern gothic settings, tough, weird protagonists and dark humor connect the two authors like a flaming beam — though Russell’s work is bolstered with a little more sentimentality to soften the blow.

Cormac McCarthy and Franz Kafka

Wait, hear us out. Yes, McCarthy’s work is famously filled with bloodshed and all-too-lucid descriptions of Southern sunbaked miseries and Kafka’s is chilly and surreal, but for us, the true takeaway from Kafka is a sense of personal alienation, of futility and cyclical struggle. And we got the same exact sinking feeling from On the Road and Blood Meridian, no matter how different their colors.

David Sedaris and Mark Twain

Though deep down, we sort of consider Jon Stewart to be the modern Mark Twain, since he’s only technically a writer we’ll have to go with Sedaris, whose masterful brand of satire and commentary on the American experience makes him something like a 21st century version of the master of humor and storytelling — though no one comes close to Twain. Plus, just look at their twin postures!

Zadie Smith and Jane Austen

Though stylistically the two writers are as different as their respective time periods, we think Smith, who has repeatedly cited Austen as one of her influences, has inherited Austen’s cheeky sense of humor, wry view of society, and interest in female characters working both with and against their social norms. The fact that Smith occasionally has “wet dreams about turning into Iris Murdoch” is a whole other matter.

Michel Houellebecq and Lord Byron

Houellebecq, the bad boy of French letters who routinely gets in trouble for trying to seduce his female interviewers, is an obvious spiritual reincarnation of Lord Byron, the bad boy of Romanticism, who was equally arrogant and scandalous, not to mention “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” From everything we’ve heard, though, Houellebecq has some work to do before he reaches Byron’s level of excess. There’s still time, Michel!

Teju Cole and Jack Kerouac

If Kerouac were to start his wandering and spontaneous prose writing today, we think he might go about it a little bit more like Cole — or at least a little more like Julius, the narrator of Open City. Though Cole inserts an element of race that would be mostly alien to Kerouac, both men are defining the American experience through travel, talk and reflection, and maybe a little bit of consumption along the way.

Geoff Dyer and W.G. Sebald

Dyer’s work is undoubtably influenced by Sebald, with its fluid mix of travelogue, memoir, history and fiction, and at points might even be mistaken for the great wanderer’s work — were it not for Dyer’s inherent sense of humor, which brightens up the mists considerably.

Grace Krilanovich and William S. Burroughs

They may not have too much in common in their personal lives (or maybe they do, we couldn’t say), but The Orange Eats Creeps is pretty much Naked Lunch with vampires. Which is about as contemporary a transformation as you can get.