The Un-tortured Artist

Harold Bloom once snarkily quipped that John Updike was “a minor novelist with a major style.” After reading Adam Begley’s biography, Updike, Daniel Ross Goodman seems to agree, noting the writer’s “lack of intense passion.” He speculates the deficit “was because Updike did not experience the deep suffering of many other literary geniuses”:

Updike was not forced to labor for a lifetime before achieving literary success, as George Eliot did. He did not face death threats (Salman Rushdie), outrage directed at him from his own ethnic group (Roth), devastating poverty (Edgar Allan Poe), crippling physical illness (Anton Chekhov), disabling mental illness (David Foster Wallace), relentless addiction (John Cheever), or a lifetime of being forced to conceal his gender (the Brontë sisters) or sexual orientation (E.M. Forster). Nor was he ever the tortured artist á la Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, or Virginia Woolf.


Wallace was a prodigy, but the battles he waged with his personal demons rendered his career more compelling and, on a certain level, more approachable.

While Updike was not born into literary nobility, he did not exactly grow up in a culturally impoverished family. His mother was well-read and was herself an aspiring writer who encouraged John’s artistic pursuits. Nonetheless, Begley expends copious amounts of energy recounting Updike’s alleged “challenges” and “setbacks”: he got into Harvard quite easily, but was rejected by Princeton (boo-hoo); he had to move away from his hometown (who doesn’t?); some of his stories were rejected by The New Yorker. (Whose aren’t? Well, Updike’s, that’s whose. After sending many stories to The New Yorker during college, when he graduated, not only did his stories begin to be accepted by the storied magazine, but he was given a job at the magazine. No modern writer, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald, Begley admits, landed such a plum position so early in his life.)

Updike’s setbacks were not in the league of David Foster Wallace’s clinical depression, Roth’s hellish marriage, Cheever’s alcoholism, or Shakespeare’s loss of a son. Nor did Updike ever truly grapple with the classical writerly tortures: writers’ block, tortured artistry, failed ambitions, unpopularity in his lifetime, lack of critical success, or any sort of literary demons. Updike’s literary setbacks were those of a lottery winner who stubs his toe on the way to the bank and then has to wait in line before he can cash his check.

Previous Dish coverage of the much-discussed Updike biography here.