Updike Upclose, Ctd

Adam Begley’s biography Updike continues to stir debate about its subject’s artistic merits. For the defense, David Baddiel:

He is the great poet of the ordinary life, of domesticity, of life as most people live it – as opposed to Saul Bellow, who writes mainly about life as deep-thinking intellectuals, academics and writers live it (and who was considered, mistakenly, a better writer throughout that time when the “Great Male Narcissists”, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase, ruled the literary cosmos). The problem for gravitas-chasing critics such as [Harold] Bloom and [James] Wood was that Updike writes small – and they mistook this for the size of his talent. “Small” doesn’t really do him justice. A better word would be “microscopic”: using the microscope of his extraordinary prose, Updike reveals and articulates the largest mysteries of life.  …

There is a problem with the way people read novels now, most obvious in Amazon reviews, in which readers consistently confuse whether or not a novel is good with whether or not they “like” the characters. Generally, readers imagine that if they don’t like the characters in a novel, it is a bad book. To make matters worse, whether or not they like the characters is usually based on whether or not the characters behave nicely. All of this is a disaster for literature and particularly for Updike, whose characters never behave nicely or, indeed, evilly – they just behave like people do, in a flawed way. “People are incorrigibly themselves” was his motto in creating his people.

But Jeffrey Meyers writes off Updike’s work, insisting his “prose sometimes seemed as if it had been written on a typewriter by a typewriter”:

Updike’s New Yorker reviews of literature and art were high-grade book reports with very little penetrating analysis, designed to be easily digested by his middle­brow readers. Mary McCarthy and Gore Vidal were more perceptive and amusing critics and, compared to Edmund Wilson and George Steiner, Updike was a dwarf among giants. …

Updike’s long career combined the blandness of the tranquillised 1950s with the narcissism of the Me Generation. In a brilliant, hilarious review in 1998, David Foster Wallace said that Updike’s principal character Rabbit Angstrom is “symptomatic of the prison of self-absorption and egoism that afflicted so many Americans”. He memorably called Updike “just a penis with a thesaurus” and, referring to his enormous output, asked, “Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

Updike’s novels are not nearly as good as those of Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov and his tame non-fiction does not match the coruscating essays of Norman Mailer and James Baldwin. In the end, for all his cataract of words, Updike not only failed to transcend the superficial and vacuous New Yorker values but also came to embody them.

Previous Dish on Updike here and here.