What writers have been the greatest influence on you?Probably Kipling and Tolkien. I used to want to be able to say: Plato and Hume, Dante and Milton, Tolstoy and Goethe. But as I get older I get more and more impatient with the standard canon’s pathological focus on Dead White European Men: DWEMs have things to say, they have interesting points of view, but the things they say are not the only things to be said and I’ve never been convinced (although I used to think this was my problem) that their point of view is the most compelling or beguiling or profound, or most anything except most male. And I’ve never liked Milton. Why would I want to be influenced by him? My own heritage is European anglo, and I am inevitably suffering cultural tunnel vision, but while it’s stupid and shameful that the European bias barely registers the rest of the world, how can any so-called canon purporting to address the human condition leave out women? Except maybe to serve as a kind of diving board to kick against as hard as possible for furthest trajectory. (And if anyone tries to tell me that this is the ‘post feminist’ era I will become violent. Books written by women now receive respectful reviews and win prizes but—just as example of the current status quo, I pick up the literary review I read, and glance at the table of contents. The list of contributors this week contains nine men and five women. I next borrow a recent copy of the literary review Peter reads. Their contributors are sixteen men, four women, and three names that might go either way. Even if all three of the unknowns were women. . . .)
There are some honourable honourable mentions, in terms of the canon I grew up and went to college with, on my list of influences: Homer and Euripides, Dickens and Hardy and (Anthony, not Fanny) Trollope, Keats and Yeats and Auden. (No, not Shakespeare. I'm not a Shakespeare fan.) I think the only two women that belong on this canonical list are George Eliot, who used a man’s name, and Charlotte Bronte—who began by using a man’s name too. (No, not Jane Austen. I enjoy her books, but I don’t engage with them.)
But my own record nonetheless begins with Kipling and Tolkien. Speaking of Dead White European Males (although Tolkien wasn’t dead till 1973). Sigh. But I was born in 1952, and when I was growing up, that was what there was: guys. (Girls’ books tended to be . . . girly. I have never been interested in who went to the prom with whom.) The sixties make-love-not-war movement, including its literature, was every bit as much about men as the Declaration of Independence was. (Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, that seminal novel of male-bashing, came out in 1977. One of the problems with trying to right imbalances is that pioneering lurches in the needful direction are often a bit extreme. 1977, just by the way, was one year before my Beauty was published, that bastion of old-fashioned romance—but with a heroine who gets some good lines.) It’s taken me a long time to shed the sneaking suspicion—or, if you like, fear—that while women are undervalued, probably the truly great thinkers are men. And yet very possibly it is true: because the great thinkers, at least the ones who got famous for it, had wives or housekeepers who did the dusting and the laundry, leaving the guys free to pursue their airy cogitations. Something else that creeps over me, like moss or spiders, as I grow older, is the belief that becoming, or being enabled by your beloved slave to become, entirely detached from the practical realities of laundry, floor-scrubbing, and the alchemy of putting cooked food on the table, is a Bad Thing. You may prefer mucking out stalls or pruning rosebushes to picking up socks or sweeping the floor, which is fine—my own tastes run that way—but something has to get you away from your chair/desk/fireside and into contact with dirt and three-dimensional reality.
But I digress.
I know Kipling from very early just-literate childhood with The Just So Stories, and I progressed rapidly -- as rapidly as my reading vocabulary would let me -- into the British-India stories such as Plain Tales from the Hills and Soldiers Three and the resonant English-landscape stories of Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. You can't ever quite pin Kipling down; his best stuff and his worst stuff always lie very close to each other. My favourite books of his often also contain the stories or poems I detest most. Sometimes best and worst are in the same story, like Kim or The Ballad of East and West -- although I like Ballad, despite the extremely icky and embarrassing bonding of the two strong men who have come from the ends of the earth, for the horses.
When I was a kid I just sucked it all in and didn't think about which bits I liked or didn't like, but I had figured it out enough by the time I wrote Sword that I was at some pains to make the natives more interesting -- and a lot better clued in -- than the paler-skinned invaders. Sword's immediate inspiration is Kipling's story The Man Who Would Be King, as funnelled through John Huston's reading of it as a film, and crossbred with The Sheik. Speaking of embarrassing and detestable stories. I read E M Hull's The Sheik because I thought it was going to be not only a wonderful old-fashioned British Empire adventure novel, like The Four Feathers or Beau Geste, but a wonderful old-fashioned British Empire novel where an English woman rides off into the desert to have adventures. It isn't. It's about the punishment a woman who tries to do a man's job -- i.e. ride off into the desert and have adventures -- necessarily calls down upon herself and how if she's punished long and hard enough she'll learn to like it and embrace it as her fate as a woman. Oh yes, and the sheik himself turns out to be English -- not a, you know, unsavoury non-anglo foreigner -- so it's okay that she falls in love with him after he's been raping her into submission for a while.
The thing about Kipling's stories for me is the energy of them. They burst off the page at you, full of life and strength and -- in the good ones -- truth (if not, in my opinion, wisdom, at least not very often). I was absolutely taken out of myself -- snatched out of myself, when I read them as a child. I am taken out of myself by them now, although I don't know how much of that is the familiarity of long friendship. Rereading a beloved book -- or taking a walk in a countryside (or a cityscape) that you have long loved and been nourished by -- can both take you out of yourself and set you more firmly within yourself. (I think it's one of the few clearly good things to say about getting older and creakier and more set in your ways, that the richness and value of old friendships increase; and in my life that includes books and landscapes as well as people. Now if only dogs and cats and horses lived as long as trees and mountains and books that aren't dropped in the bath so often that their pages fall out.)
Whether you like him or loathe him, you will probably acknowledge that Kipling has style. He could use the language and (as Raymond Chandler might say) it stayed used. (Chandler is another of these blokeish blokes for whom women are a conundrum, who is also a fantastic writer and stylist—great literature as surreal detective stories—and who had a big influence on me. It’s no wonder I grew up twisted—in company with most of the women of my generation.) I wish I had absorbed more of Kipling’s ability to get seven or seventy words' effect out of a six-word sentence. In this I am more like Tolkien, who goes on rather. ( . . . But not at all like Shakespeare.) I fell out several volumes ago of The History of Middle-Earth . . . but if I were allowed only one desert-island book it would still be The Lord of the Rings. (I am not cheating. There are single-volume editions, and Tolkien himself fought hard against having it published as three separate books.)
In Tolkien it's the strength of Story that seizes me irresistibly and bears me away, through all 1000-plus pages of small print. I'm aware, at least some of the time, of his defects: there are no women at all in LOTR, although Galadriel at least has a few lines and Eowyn almost gets to do something (although Merry does it first); everybody speaks Old High Forsoothly, except the hobbits, who incline to Early Public Schoolboy; and there are an awful lot of things that seem to be tall and fair, or as clear as clear water, or that shine like silver, or that are silver and shine like the stars, or that are dusk-silver as water under the stars, or . . . well, if you've read Tolkien, you know what I mean. And speaking of fair, there aren't any non-anglos in the book either, except on the wrong side.
I don't know why none of this ruins the story for me. It should. Similar shortcomings have ruined many other books for me. And in the proliferation of doorstop fantasies since Tolkien -- even politically correct doorstop fantasies -- I have never found another one to love. (I can't love ERR Eddison either, by the way, to speak briefly of pre-Tolkien doorstop fantasy, or William Morris, who speaks an Old High Forsoothly that makes Tolkien look clued up and funky. But I find it strange that Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy never quite catches on, although it is periodically rereleased and talked up, as it deserves. I admit I don't love it either although I admire it a lot and read it with a rather mesmerised pleasure. Peake had a strange mind.)
If you're interested in more of my ravings about Tolkien, I did an essay on him for a vast heavy reference volume called Writers for Children, edited by Jane M. Bingham, and published by Scribners in 1988. I doubt it's in print, but it should still be lurking on library reference shelves. What I should do is see if I can get the rights back, revise the thing—it needs revising—and hang it here.