I’ve read Lee Siegel’s defense of the late writer John Updike and it seems less a reasoned critique than a courtier’s screech of outrage that any of Updike’s detractors — a dark, bloodthirsty mob led by Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace and, above all, James Wood — should have the temerity to question Updike’s spot at the top of the American literary heap.
And not simply outraged — Siegel’s article fairly rattles and bangs with spluttering, Yosemite Sam-like fury at the mere suggestion that Rabbit Angstrom and Henry Bech may not have a very long shelf life. For a critic to disagree with other critics is nothing new. For a critic to attack other critics for engaging in criticism is simply pathetic.
Considering that Updike enjoyed a remarkable level of acclaim, acceptance and security virtually from the moment he started shaping words on paper, Siegel’s portrait of him as a Great White Male wounded and gouged by a flotilla of literary Ahabs is simply bizarre. As for the jabs at the “electronic anthill” of the Internet . . . well, Siegel’s misadventures on the Web are a matter of record and already the source of much well-deserved ridicule, so I guess we can simply chuckle at the continuing cluelessness of it all.
I’m on record as being ambivalent about Updike’s work: I admire Roger’s Version and some of the other novels, but generally prefer the nonfiction and the generous spirit Updike brought to the craft of reviewing books. Reading some of the faint praise occasioned by Updike’s death — and the even fainter damning tone Siegel uses against his critics — only strengthens my hunch that Updike will end up as another James Gould Cozzens, and if that makes you think “James Gould Who?” — that’s my point.
But even if this turns out to be the case, I would hope that Updike’s reputation could find a more worthy defender than this.