Friday, January 27, 2012

Defending John Updike

Writer Katie Roiphe does a wonderful job defending the late novelist John Updike against the onslaught of posthumous naysaying regarding his reputation in her current piece in Slate. Cheap shots, she essentially declares, quoting the more notable snipers like  David Foster Wallace and James Wood. The biggest complaint isn’t that Updike wrote badly; in fact, he is pilloried for writing too well, too often. Roiphe puts the lie to the accusations.  Another charge is that the departed novelist wrote the same novel over and over, for decades, decorating rich promiscuity of his language; the sheer perfume around the prose was meant to distract us from the paucity of ideas, the lack of variety. One wonders how much Updike these critics have read. There are advantages to reading deeply and slowly.

 Updike has written novels that resemble one another in many respects over the years, but this not issuing the same novel "over and over." I would say that he is thematically less repetitive than Philip Roth, who is often cited as The American writer is most likely to be our next Nobel Laureate in literature. Updike has themes and ideas that he works on in his many novels and short story collections, but there are usually new variations, nuance, new ironies to experience. Most good novelists you can name do this. Updike, though, was especially keen at setting his ideas--spiritual aridity, infidelity, the denial of death through manic activity and material acquisition, the eventual irony as Life trudges forward unmindful of character pride or expectations--in settings one would associate with him.
The astonishing thing about Updike is how much and how often he experimented with form and subject, purposefully and with success straying from the nice little container his critics try to place him in. We can also have "Gertrude and Claudius," his lively prequel to "Hamlet," "Terrorist," an especially intense character study of an American-born jingoistic, and "Brazil," a favorite of mine, an inspired turn at Magic Realism. These novels, as well the novels “The Coup,” “Witches of Eastwick,” and “Seek My Face”, demonstrate an impressive range for any novelists, regardless of how high their current literary stock might happen to be.  An especially irksome, which is to say knee-jerk charge leveled against the novelist is that he is an egotist and an unreconstructed narcissist, someone who fashioned a high literary style to glide through a narrow range of matters that reflects a self-absorption bordering on a psychological defect. That charge essentially consists that Updike failed at a supposed grand responsibility to connect with a community of readers who expect the characters to be sufficiently sympathetic who retain the possibility for redemption. 

 This is patent nonsense since the principal duty of the novelist, the poet, the artist isn't to second guess their talent and attempt a version of accomplishment and truth find as someone else might imagine it, but to explore their own perceptions in some detail against and within a variety of different situations and to see precisely where their ideas, concepts, fears take them. Calling this narcissism is a convenient way of avoiding the task of understanding Updike's fictional world. I would also substitute the word egotism with confidence--the artist worth paying attention to is the one who commits themselves fully to a style that allows them to attempt many different things to the fullest degree; to the degree that Updike wrote a considerable number of novels that are not your typical mainstream inventions--he dared to experiment with his famous style--and in doing kept his persistent themes viable and capable of yielding more nuances to his tales of the frailty of the human will, he is a master. No less than Henry James, no less than Faulkner, no less than Nabokov.   Updike's stock should be much, much higher then it is, and Roiphe's article makes a persuasive argument in Updike's defense. UpdikeHHe was the best American novelist while he lived, I think, and it sticks in the craw of his detractors that there are not others who demonstrated such a brilliant consistency over many decades of writing.


  1. Great defense of Updike. I also enjoyed your review of Mailer's book,
    'An American Dream" on Salon.

  2. Anonymous10:27 PM PDT

    <3 Updike


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