On one of my panels at Capclave, I asked my fellow panelists whether they ever feared being influenced too much by the authors that they love. And they all answered something like, “No, you eventually develop your own voice.”
I think that it’s much less common for SF writers to have this anxiety of influence. It’s a pretty incestuous tradition we have, and copying other peoples’ style and stuff is more or less an accepted thing. You stand on the shoulders of giants for long enough and, eventually, you start to say your own thing.
However, I do worry about being influenced too much. And my example is George Saunders. I like GS a lot. But I hold myself back from loving him and rereading him and becoming extremely familiar with him, just because it seems like his influence is so pervasive. The problem is not that lots of writers are doing really terrible GS-influenced work. That’s fine. Terrible work sinks to the bottom. The problem is that a lot of writers are doing really GOOD Saundersy work and they’re succeeding fantastically and winning awards and selling lots of copies and getting professorships and, like, that’s kind of a trap. Because once you’ve succeeded with something, you’re not going to move past it.
George Saunders has defined this style of heavily voice-driven fiction with slightly outsized situations, satirical / speculative setting elements, and absurd, pathetic characters whose plight fills you with this aching sadness. And…umm…that’s what most successful short story writers do nowadays: Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, Miranda July, Wells Towers, Karen Russell, etc.
And it’s all great and fun to read and everything. But it doesn’t blow your mind. And I want more than that. I want to at least try to blow peoples’ minds. I don’t want to just succeed in the way everyone expects me to succeed; I want to succeed in an unexpected way.
That’s why I tend to shy away from reading the hip new literary (or speculative) writers. Even when they’re good, I feel like their influence is so thoroughly assimilated into the prevailing literary culture that consuming it doesn’t allow you the room to do anything new. For me, the reason to read contemporary stuff is primarily so you know what not to do.