Thursday, July 9, 2015

12 writers who influenced my writing



This is by no means intended as an exhaustive list of all of the writers who have inspired me and influenced my writing style over the years. I'm sure that after I hit publish I’ll think of other writers who were just as worthy of inclusion as some of those who made it to the forefront of my mind as I was compiling it. 

The list is presented in more-or-less chronological order of when I came across their writing in life, and provides a short explanation of who they are and why I consider their writing so inspirational.

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is most famous for his children’s literature, but he also wrote adult fiction too, which is certainly worth checking out. Some people tend to scoff at children’s literature, but I don’t. It takes a special kind of writing voice to engage and inspire children. With his wonderful appreciation of the utter silliness that children adore, Roald Dahl was responsible for completely revolutionising children’s literature, making it as engaging for adults as it is for children. In my view any parent of young children who hasn't read at least a few Roald Dahl books aloud to their kids needs a bloody good talking to.

Spike Milligan

Like Roald Dahl, Spike Milligan was a veteran who witnessed the horrors of the Second World War. I first came across his work as a child (the ning nang nong, Milliganimals and loads of other silly stuff) but it was only when I re-engaged with his work as an adolescent that I came to appreciate the staggering genius of his work. His war diaries are juxtapose the sublime with the ridiculous and the horrific with the breathtakingly beautiful, but it’s in his poetry that I found the most inspiration. Spike suffered terribly with his mental health, and it was his poetry about depression, love and loss that reached out into the mind of the depressed and socially anxious teenager I was and told me that it doesn't matter how bad things get in life, you can still write something utterly amazing about it.

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke was a remarkable man. He did pioneering work on the development of the radar technology that helped the UK survive the Battle of Britain, he is credited with inventing the concept of the geostationary telecommunications satellite and he was also a noteworthy underwater explorer who discovered the remains of the Koneswaram temple in eastern Sri Lanka. In later life he became one of the greatest science fiction writers of his generation with his brand of hard sci-fi, that eschewed fantasy and scientific inaccuracy for the creation of potential future realities. His science fiction work was a kind of novelisation of popular science and futurology. His book 2001 resulted in one of the greatest science fiction films of all time; Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey", a film adaptation that severely tests the common assertion that film adaptations are never as good as the book.


Douglas Adams

If you haven’t read "The Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy", why not? Surely you've been told many times how good it is. In the view of an unapologetic nerd like me, Douglas Adams is the most hilarious writer I've ever encountered. The humour in his science fiction writing contrasts with the seriousness of hard sci-fi writers like Arthur C. Clarke, but he was no less educational and informative for it, dealing with issues like quantum indeterminacy, improbability, computing, artificial intelligence and countless others through the prism of humour. If, for whatever reason, you consider yourself the kind of person who doesn't like sci-fi, I thoroughly recommend his two hilarious novels about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned from Douglas Adams’ work is that it is possible to be incredibly funny and informative at the same time.


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn wrote compellingly about his experiences of the brutal excesses of the Soviet Union. He spent a decade in various soviet forced labour camps and political exile for the “crime” of writing a letter to his friend criticising Stalin’s conduct of the Second World War. His experiences during these years formed the basis of most of his great works. “The Gulag Archipelago” was one of the most compelling books I read as a teenager, but the much shorter book “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” is his most accessible masterpiece. As the title suggests, it chronicles the events of a single day in the life of the protagonist. What makes it such a remarkable work is the way that it builds a picture of the whole world of the Soviet labour camps by chronicling the activities of a single prisoner in a single day.

Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley was born into an establishment family, and perhaps that’s how he gained such a remarkable understanding of the way the establishment powers use propaganda and distraction to maintain their grip on power. He is most famous for his science fiction novel “Brave New World”, but his non-fiction work “Brave New World Revisited” is equally worth a read. George Orwell was another writer who strongly influenced my writing, but as the years progress I’m ever more convinced that we’re moving toward Huxley’s dystopian vision of the future rather than Orwell’s. In 1984 Orwell imagined an all-powerful state that controlled the population through brute force, while Huxley imagined a state that kept people servile by bombarding them with propaganda and distraction. Both Huxley and Orwell taught me that it is possible to conduct insightful and engaging political analysis through the medium of fiction.

Hunter S. Thompson

It is impossible to understate the influence that Hunter S. Thompson’s writing has had on me. He invented the genre of Gonzo journalism, and when he was at his productive peak he was capable of producing unsurpassable analysis of politics and American culture through the prism of his own lived experience. His most famous work was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film adaptation of which was directed by the legendary Monty Python turned film director Terry Gilliam, but his some of his other work was equally influential. Hells Angels, The Rum Diaries and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail are all exceptional works. I’ve written quite a lot in the gonzo style, the vast majority of it as yet unpublished, and I fully intend to write some more and publish it at some point.

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell is perhaps my favourite philosopher. Many of the things he wrote in the early to mid 20th Century stand truer today than when he actually wrote them. It really doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself a left-wing person or not, reading some Bertrand Russell and thinking about it will make you more intelligent. If you want to read some, a good place to start might be his essays on Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism entitled “ProposedRoads to Freedom” from 1918.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein has written three phenomenal books. “No Logo” is a brilliant critique of consumerist culture. “The Shock Doctrine” exposes the crackpot right-wing economic agenda that was forged in the furnaces of brutal South American dictatorships, and has gradually become the economic orthodoxy of our age. Her most recent book is “This Changes Everything” which deals with the devastating environmental impact of modern capitalism. One of the big influences Naomi Klein had on me as a writer was the way she is so meticulous in backing up her assertions with facts and references.


I think it’s definitely worth noting that Naomi Klein is the only female writer in my list and considering the reasons why. Part of the reason is selection bias. There are just more male writers in my favoured genres of science fiction, politics and economics, but this imbalance is gradually changing and improving as the years progress. Another reason is that most of my favourite writers come from the mid-20th Century period, where there were so many more barriers to female success in place, meaning fewer women could break through and establish themselves as influential writers. I wish there were more women on my list, and hope that should I compile a similar list in the future (perhaps of influential 21st Century writers) that it contains more female voices.

Noam Chomsky

The world is so complex these days that it’s rare indeed for anyone to be able to claim to be a world leading authority figure in two distinct fields. Noam Chomsky undeniably is. Not only is he a world renowned linguist (perhaps his most famous contribution is his grammatically correct but completely nonsensical phrase “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”) he’s also one of the great political thinkers of our age. If you haven’t read any Chomsky you really should. If you lean to the left, then you’ll find his writing compelling, and if you lean to the right you should get a teriffic mental workout from trying to find fault in his analyses.


Ha-Joon Chang

In my view Ha-Joon Chang is one of the greatest economics writers of our age. He has found a manner of explaining seemingly complex economic ideas in everyday language, so that ordinary people can engage with what is often perceived to be an elitist and inaccessible subject. I was already writing about economics in everyday language when I came across Ha Joon Chang’s book “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism” and I read it with amazement as I realised that there was somebody else out there doing what I was trying to do, and doing such a fantastically good job of it. If you want to know more about the subject of economics, but find it intimidating, then I absolutely recommend that you read some Ha-Joon Chang.

Steve Keen

Steve Keen is an Australian economist who was one of the tiny minority who managed to accurately predict the 2007-08 global financial sector insolvency crisis. I’m not saying he was unique in saying that there was a bust coming, even I was saying that and back then I knew a tiny fraction of what I do know about economics. What made Steve Keen different is that he explained how the crash would come about, and he put his head above the parapet and said so. At the time Keen was lambasted as a fearmongerer for having dared to stand up and criticise the orthodox economic system, but the global financial sector meltdown proved him right. If you manage to read some Ha-Joon Chang and take something from it, the next step could be to move on to Steve Keen’s “Debunking Economics”, which although much harder work, is crammed full of critiques of the right-wing crony capitalist neoclassical orthodoxy that caused the global financial sector meltdown, and has somehow built itself such a powerful position that it seems almost impervious to criticism and immune from reform.

Endnote

If you are an aspiring writer, I imagine that it would be a useful exercise for you to compile a similar list of writers who have influenced you, and analyse what it is about their writing that made it so engaging.


I think the factor that makes these writers stand out from the hundreds of others I've read is more than the fact that they wrote about subjects I found engaging, it's that they found a voice. A style of writing that was uniquely theirs.

If you think that I’ve missed off any terribly important writers please feel free to add your own suggestions and descriptions in the comments section.


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