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Great Writers Share Their Literary Influences

Throughout history, writers have been influenced by those who came before. Children’s author and blogger Nathan Bransford said it best: “No writer lives in a vacuum. We all take inspiration from the people who have come before us. We are moved some of their best ideas, we all start through imitation before we graduate to originality, and it's important to recognize and honor the people who paved the way for your work.”

In celebration of National Book Lover’s Day, we took a look at some of the greatest writers to find out who inspired them. We here at Grammarly are big readers, but even we were surprised by some of the literary legacies we uncovered. Here are some of our favorite writers on the books that influenced them:

Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections, credits Franz Kafka for showing him the power of writing. "Kafka's 'The Trial' opened my eyes to the greatness of what literature can do, and made me want to try to create some myself."

Contemporary author Jonathan Lethem, whose novels include Motherless Brooklyn and Girl in Landscape, admitted that he can “still feel Lewis Carroll fundamentally operating in what I like to do with dialogue, some of the ways that characters misunderstand each other, which basically come from Alice talking to impossible creatures like Humpty Dumpty or The White Queen. I also developed an appetite for writers who were working with the fantastic in other, more literary ways, like Kafka and Borges, very early on."

Surprisingly, both Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov, best known for Lolita, and the great American sci-fi master Ray Bradbury credit Victorian science fiction writers as great influences. Nabokov said of his earliest influence, “H.G. Wells, a great artist, was my favorite writer when I was a boy.”

Bradbury, on the other hand, waxes rhapsodic about Jules Verne: “I’ve found that I’m a lot like Verne—a writer of moral fables, an instructor in the humanities. He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally. His hero Nemo—who in a way is the flip side of Melville’s madman, Ahab—goes about the world taking weapons away from people to instruct them toward peace.

For some authors, it’s possible to see a chain of literary inspiration stretching back generations. The late David Foster Wallace, whose weighty tome Infinite Jest is on many readers’ bucket lists, credits Thomas Pynchon amongst his greatest influences (no surprise there), while Pynchon, whose famously dense and obscure Gravity’s Rainbow was the Infinite Jest of its day, credits Jack Kerouac as an influence on his own work. Kerouac, in turn, idolized the American novelist Thomas Wolfe (not to be confused with journalist Tom Wolfe!).

Dizzy yet?

In an interview with Ernest Hemingway, George Plimpton asked who his influences were. For a man so famous for his terse, muscular writing style, Hemingway rattles off quite a lengthy list: Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart…”

What book inspires you? Who influences you as a writer? Share your stories in the comments!