Friday, January 30, 2009

On Updike

You'll probably be better off reading Amy's remembrance than anything from this point on.

I have been out of pocket of late with regard to blogosphere things, and so I'm late with this little post. I am not as familiar with Updike's work as I should be--he's perhaps the most prominent contemporary American writer with whose writing I'm least familiar. This is not his fault. As the excerpts from the various remembrances Amy links to make clear, Updike was a consummate craftsman, careful but not overly fussy with language--like Cormac McCarthy, but with more adjectives (and considerably less violence). He's worth your time, if you've not read him.

But while I deeply respect Updike's skill as a writer, I have to admit that as a reader I have a hard time finding him especially compelling. There is a novel of his, Brazil, that I will be rereading for my book project but keep delaying the rereading of because, to be honest, I just don't like it very much, decently-written though it is. His recurrent subject-matter of middle-class America is something I, as a middle-class American, should feel some connection with. The fact that I don't is, as I said earlier, not his fault, but it's for that reason that I've always found Updike's reputation as a giant literary truth-teller of our particular cultural moment to be a bit of a puzzle: are these people seeing something in his work that I'm missing? Or do these folks, cultured and literate, members of a cultural (if not socioeconomic) upper class, see Updike's terrain as exotic, as a world they fancy themselves not to be part of?

Whichever the answer, I hope it's clear that, again, the problem--if that's the right word--is not with Updike. For the most part, he wrote about what he knew best--as all writers are told to do (whether they follow that advice or not is another matter, of course). For me, thinking about Updike and my relationship to his work is a reminder that, no matter how talented s/he might be, a writer still requires not mere readers but, as Hawthorne (someone to whom,, for me, Updike bears some significant similarities) puts it in the preface to The Scarlet Letter, "the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates." I feel a strange regret that I am not among that few, but I am happy for Updike--and for those few--that they found each other.

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