The Library of America recently published John Updike’s Collected Stories in two volumes. In a review, James Santel considers “the larger problem of John Updike: he was incapable of writing badly, but was he capable of writing, for lack of a better word, importantly?”
Having read nearly 200 of Updike’s stories in rapid succession, I’m more sympathetic to the critics’ point of view than I had been. While not willing to go as far as [Jonathan] Franzen, who argues that Updike was “wasting” his “tremendous, Nabokov-level talent,” I was surprised by how many of Updike’s stories impressed me while I read them, and how few left an impression.
One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.
The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to [critic James] Wood’s question ["of whether beauty is enough"] is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.