Tuesday, May 01, 2012


Some of you might have heard this segment on Radio National's Books and Arts Daily program. It's called Top Shelf and in it, writers and other artists are invited to list five works that have touched or influenced their life and work. A friend recently linked to Alain de Botton's choices on facebook and then set the challenge for us, his friends, to consider our own list of five influences.

This exercise really got me thinking about all the great artists and creative people whose work has touched me. Coming up with a list was very difficult. Did I need to go back to the books and artists that I loved as a teenager, considering that they probably shaped me into the adult I became? What is the difference between a work I simply love and one that influences me? Perhaps something I dislike could actually influence me quite strongly? Did I need to make sure I covered a range of different media, or could I list several books (and leave out, say, music altogether)? Could I 'cheat' and list a whole movement? (I wanted to include the Art Deco movement, but consensus on fb was that was definitely cheating!) And how could I possibly stop at five?

In the end this is my list, with brief explanations and in no particular order. Writers make up most of it, but though I love music and lots of visual artists, if I'm honest it's the written word that really gets through to me. A top 10 or 20 would definitely include a greater range of arts.

1. The writing of Annie Proulx. Ok, I'm probably already cheating here because I can't narrow this down to one book. That's because it is her style rather than one particular work that has shaped my writing aesthetic. I love the way Proulx can inhabit a place so completely. I love her appreciation of nature and rural settings. I love her characters. I was blown away by The Shipping News in the 90s and I've read almost everything else she has written since. I even loved her less-than-well-received memoir, Birdcloud.

2. The writing of Michael Chabon. Again, not just one work but the body of work. I love the way Chabon is so wholeheartedly enthusiastic in his writing. Each of his books is so different from the last, and yet they all share an intense interest in the world and all the wonderful things it contains. Chabon reminds me to unashamedly embrace genre fiction. Without him I probably wouldn't have read brilliant genre writers like China Mieville and Susanna Clarke. And Wonder Boys, goddamn that book is good!

3. Wes Anderson's film Rushmore. If I could have made any film, it'd be Rushmore. Anderson's visual aesthetic has, in some small way, changed the way I see the world. I love his quirky, wry, mannered style and I think this film is his best. I also love Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums. I think perhaps he may have pushed his style as far as it'll go (I wasn't keen on Darjeeling Ltd) but Rushmore is pretty close to perfection for me.

4. Sylvia Plath's Ariel. It's a cliche for teenage girls to love Plath but, you know, they are right. It's not her battles with depression and her tragic end that gets me, it's her brilliant writing. So raw and honest, but also so skilful and beautiful. I studied her at high school and realised how powerful poetry could be. Now as an adult it's her description of motherhood and home life that I relate to most.

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the tv show). This might seem a little out of left field but was really a no-brainer for my list. Buffy was the first series that really showed me the possibilities of tv. Joss Whedon's storylines played out over whole seasons, even several seasons. The show played with genre and mythology in a fun and clever way. The characters were interesting and convincing, and challenged conventions (arse-kicking female lead, gay characters etc). There was a silent episode, an episode with no music and a musical episode (my personal favourite). Since Buffy, I have loved some really amazing tv series (Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and so on) but for me, this is where I realised that maybe tv could really be something pretty special. Plus, there's this...

So that's my list. It's not perfect but I think it gives a snapshot of how I see the world. And it was so much fun to come up with.

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