Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Stop all the clocks: John Updike dies at 76

John Updike died last night. He died of lung cancer, he was 76. I was really, really shaken by this, not only because I love Updike's short stories, especially the ones about Richard and Joan Maple, which endow heartbreak with a kind of prismatic quality--the familiar world of the middle-class married couple is at once refracted, by adultery and, ultimately, divorce, and filled with rainbows--out of all of Updike's immense body of work, these stories have a particular, an exquisite, aching beauty. But also because I called Updike an asshole--twice. There really is no good synonym. I certainly did NOT mean cad. I wrote my junior paper about Updike's short fiction and moral criticism, itself a dirty word in some academic circles. I didn't make much effort to distinguish between Updike and the male protagonists of his short stories as Updike doesn't. Updike always wrote best about characters that were most like himself and talked a great deal about "truth" in fiction. When criticized about a lack of violence in his work, Updike said he hadn't seen much violence in his life.

Still it never occurred to me while I was writing that Updike might die, and certainly not in the next four years. I don't for a minute imagine that Updike cared much what undergrads thought or wrote of him, as he didn't care much what established literary critics thought. He said once, something to the effect of--there is no pleasing some critics, and there is no not pleasing others. I also knew when I was writing that Updike's giant talent was so obvious, so well recognized there was nothing I could do to tarnish it. That wasn't the point. But there is something going on in Updike's writing that troubled me, and troubles me, a lack that led James Wood to write, "He is a prose writer of great beauty, but hat prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey."

Literature is not one dimensional. There is a content portion to all literature. The writing, good writing, matters, but it isn't all writing. Things happen, claims are made, stakes taken. I don't want to mandate content. I don't even want to mandate content always be moral. But I do want my authors to think past the surface of language to the underlying things that words represent. That means physical things--apples, chairs, tablecloths--and ideas--love, equality, justice. Even words in fiction are part surface and part representative of something else. You don't get off the hook just because it isn't "real."

I know that sincerity and language have absolutely no connection, believe me I know. There is bad writing that is sincere, there is good writing that isn't. Still it is hard for me to imagine writing or reading seriously without an eye to both dimensions of language. Reading Updike I could feel like I was skating on a shallow pond. There just seemed to be something missing below the surface. And a lot of critics, I felt, skated over Updike's failings because his prose was so good.

That being said, I read and re-read The Maples stories with frightening regularity. I don't think these stories lack any substance, are missing any dimension. And there is no one whose prose I admire more than Updike. I think his work will always live on. I am very sad he can't write anymore.


  1. It's curious that in one of his last public appearances, he defended books and booksellers against the digital onslaught, saying that reading a book was "an encounter, in silence, of two minds." His words were much more talked about than those of the next speaker, a young politician named Obama. So I'm off to the bookstore for his Maples stories. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I'm surprised by Wood's quote... It always seemed to me that his readings prioritized beauty over all else.

    Also, I can attest to your foul-mouthed accusations. I seem to remember the "a-hole" charge was first aired in the basement of Lamont.

  3. So it was. I guess my stance hasn't changed much since then. :)

    One of these days I'll manage to post a "surprise" on the blog....

  4. Wow didn't know he died. I just won Yahoo answers question of the day beating out hundreds of others using a quote of his I remeber from long ago, and thought I'd see what he was up to. He really had a way of putting things elegantly