Talk of “influence” makes a novelist itch, especially when the subject is his own work. He does not want his books soiled by other minds; he likes them to feel clean. When pressed, however, he might admit that, yes of course, certain people and places influenced him. His parents and his hometown. This or that novelist, now dead. He might offer, voluntarily, to describe his revolt against a particular writer or milieu. In a young artist rebellion is respectable; and acknowledging the debt of dislike is not hard. What he will seldom admit, however, is that a critic has influenced him. Does the tail wag the dog?

I once shared this prejudice. When I finished my first novel last year, I could confess my chief enthusiasms: the bighearted artistry in Tolstoy, the way of character in James, the questing spirit in American fiction. I could defend my dislike of most late modernist work and admit that, while I admired the genius of...

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