Tag Archives: John Updike

Thanks for nothing

Serving as a Pulitzer Prize judge, particularly in the fiction category, sounds like one of those honors one is better off declining — like stepping up as a volcano virgin, taking first prize in a hitting-yourself-on-the-head contest, or being the guest of honor at a stabscotch marathon. You get the privilege of reading through a few hundred entered novels and short-story collections, and then wonder if the people in charge will simply ignore your award recommendations, as just happened this past April.

I got my first look at the downside of being a Pulitzer picker courtesy of novelist and Rutgers academic Julian Moynahan, who was on the fiction panel for 1982. He and his fellow jurors had waded through the mass of entries to arrive at three finalists: A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike. The Pulitzer Prize Board upended their recommendation and gave the award to Rabbit Is Rich instead of Stone’s extraordinary novel. (The linked New Yorker piece says the jurors give three equally ranked nominations, but Moynahan made it pretty clear the jurors wanted Robert Stone to get the award.)

“They gave Updike his gold watch,” Moynahan grumbled. I couldn’t argue with him. A Flag for Sunrise still packs plenty of punch three decades after release, while Rabbit Is Rich faded away as soon as the standard-issue raves from the critical amen corner took their place of honor in the recycling bin. As for this year’s non-award, I dunno. Giving the top prize to a posthumously published novel cobbled from the late David Foster Wallace’s working papers would have been a bit unseemly as well. The opening paragraph of The Pale King, which the author cites as a miracle of prose, strikes me as a lot of grad-student overwriting — it doesn’t need to be edited so much as weed-whacked. 

Apparently, the other two finalists had problems of their own: Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams was actually a Paris Review novella published in hardcover ten years after the fact, and Swamplandia! was tyro work in danger of being overpraised. Maybe no award was the best award after all.

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Writer talk

I paid a visit to the Paley Center for Media recently to watch a Seventies-vintage broadcast of The Dick Cavett Show, and I was struck by how much spontaneity and surprise — how much sheer interest — went down the drain as late-night talk shows hardened into the rigidly choreographed showbiz showcases we now get.

Cavett is now a blogger at the Gray Lady, which kindly allowed him to post the entire clip of his 1981 chat with two of the heaviest hitters in mid-20th century American lit. It’s pretty amazing to think of a network talk show nowadays devoting an evening to one writer, let alone two.

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Indefensible defense

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.

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Rabbit review

A few days ago I noted that while I admired a handful of John  Updike’s novels, I much preferred his nonfiction — especially his book reviews. This excerpt from his collection Picked-up Pieces, suggesting ground rules for book reviewers, is a good example of why:

My rules, shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never…try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

It’s been a long while since I write criticism on a regular basis — a period in which I broke some of these rules, more than once, and often with great gusto — and while I drop opinions on books in this space from time to time, I find that nowadays I’m more inclined to shrug off a bad book rather than waste any more energy on it. 

As the craft of book reviewing continues to retreat from the realm of newspapers — after all, why would newspapers want to court the interest of people who read? — and reconstitutes itself in the blog realm, I suspect the “praise and share” philosophy will grow. I reserve the right to stomp on a book that’s wasted my time, but as I did with the Approved Authors series, I’d much rather tell people about the books that enriched my time.

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Updike at rest

I can’t say I have much of a strong response to news of the passing of John Updike. To me, his most admirable quality was his relentless productivity, but even that had its flip side. For quite some time, my reaction to any new Updike title was not “Gee, better make time for that one” but, “Huh, a new Updike, has it been a year already?”  

The last time he wowed me was in 1986 with Roger’s Version, a novel about the conflict between faith and science — and, of course, adultery — that gave each side its due, and showcased some impressive authorial knowledge (and research) along the way.

His 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies was hailed as some kind of masterpiece, but I found it practically unreadable — thoroughly grounded research studded with vaguely imagined characters in what was supposed to be a grand historical epic. Many of his later books, such as Brazil or Terrorist, came across as resume-fluffers — novels intended to show off Updike’s continued relevance and artistic vitality, yet proving the opposite.  

I much preferred Updike’s nonfiction essays and reviews, where his affinity for research meshed perfectly with his graceful writing. Updike wore his erudition most lightly when he was reviewing other novels, rather than writing his own. But the “Rabbit” novels and the scandalous early successes like Couples never did much for me, and I’d have to say that of all the big-time 20th century American novelists, Updike had the least impact on me, either emotional or literary.

ADDENDUM: Lance Mannion has more to say on this.

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