Monday, May 15, 2006

Some of My Writing Influences

I was thinking on this last week and I think I can identify five writers who have influenced by non-fiction writing.

James Lileks: I enjoy his gentle, almost apologetic, anger and quiet observational humor. He's a nostalgist, which I fear I am, but embraces modernity at the same time, which I frequently do not.

(Once, I'd have put Garrison Keillor here in place of Lileks. Ever since Keillor's return to Minnesota from his great, failed New York move, there's been a streak of curdled anger and jealousy in his writing that has poisoned him for me. Something was diminished in Keillor by his failure to succeed in the wider world. His resentment and shame ever since makes him unlistenable. He used to celebrate the old but enduring; now he just looks back like a crabbed codger.)

P.J. O'Rourke: In his National Lampoon days, he could sound like he was living the wild life you wanted to live, but more urbanely. He has a magic sleight of hand for slipping the outrageous past your outrage radar and getting you to laugh about it, too. "How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink" is precisely as shocking and funny as the title implies.

George Will: Not today's self-satisfied windbag, but the smart and erudite essayist of the Eighties. Massive command of facts marshalled into unassailable, authoritative arguments, seasoned with humor. I seriously wanted to become a columnist because of him. That same impulse is why I blog and why I wanted Wendi Thomas' job before she chickened out and took it back.

Hunter S. Thompson: Again, not the self-satisfied, tired windbag of his later years but the guy who wrote both Fear and Loathings. Fearless, lay it on the table writing. New Journalism from a parallel, Phil Dickian Psychedelic Wars world. Savage, but with a conscience of sorts; dogged but easily distracted; always at the edges but aimed at the heart of things.

And last, Mark Twain: You cannot be an American humorist or essayist and not be influenced by him. Deeply in love with his country but not at all afraid to point out its flaws, Twain could do that because he knew instinctively how humor makes the medicine go down a bit more easily. And his obvious affection for his subjects kept his criticisms from being mere hate.

I might add H.L. Mencken to this list, but I haven't read enough of him to be sure he's been an influence. He's remembered today largely as the newspaperman's editor and editorialist, unafraid to mock the powerful, but he was also racist and petty.

And, in reviewing this list, I see that all but one are or were at one point in the newspaper business. Oy.

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