Essays and Criticism
By John Updike
Knopf. 528 pp. $40.
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Reviewed by John Timpane
Which is the real John Updike?
Is it the Updike of the short stories, cramming 15 full-length collections, reading matter for millions in the 1960s and 1970s? Is it the Updike of the (by my count) 26 novels, the Rabbits, the Bechs, the Eastwicks, the Scarlet Letters, that won him many awards, including two Pulitzers?
Or is it the Updike of books like Higher Gossip, the 11th collection (and there may be more!) of essays, prefaces, personal pieces, and afterwords, taking us for tours of literature, art, sport, and self?
I first encountered Updike as a poet. While some snidely dismiss his work as light verse, much of it is anything but - the poems in Higher Gossip show what he could do - and his reputation as a poet is growing.
But I found the real Updike when I read Hugging the Shore, his 1983 collection of essays and criticism. What a fine guide he was to the writers of his age - Nabokov, Barthes, Calvino. What a vivid, relentlessly honest personal essayist. What an unabashed yet rapier-sharp sports analyst, as on baseball or golf. I wore the book out; it repays rereading.
Higher Gossip cinches the case: The real John Updike, where he and his lovely prose were most at home, was in his professional journalism. As editor Christopher Carduff says in a perceptive foreword, if you were to read all his essay collections, from 1959's Assorted Prose through Higher Gossip, you'd have a compelling experience of many of the important cultural moments of the last 50 years.
You can't call it "occasional journalism." Updike didn't do this once in a while. This was his day job (the jour in journalism), and he turned out an immense amount of work, at great speed, on a huge range of subjects, at a dismayingly high standard of excellence.
So the best term would be literary journalist. Thousands would like to be just that - the better literary bloggers come close - but few get paid and make it their lifework. Sad.
Carduff writes, on behalf of more than two generations of readers:
. . . [T]he learned yet never pedantic, civilizing yet gossipy "I" of his criticism . . . became a familiar voice in our heads. Over the course of five decades, we came to know, trust, and appropriate his pronouncements and predilections.
Here and in those 10 other collections, Updike, who died in 2009, furnishes an ideal for the working literary journalist, the knowledgeable man or woman who writes for everyone, who is just as committed to elucidation as to judgment, who can turn on a quark from modern art to semiotics to memoir to politics to sports, regarding all as accessible to any mind reasonably informed and engaged . . . and write his or her own fiction and poetry!
Academic critics often speak as if Updike were shallow. That shows they don't get it. His main goal is not the assertion of intellect; it is, first and foremost, to describe and explain the work before us, to assess it (but that's seldom his main aim), and to account for its impact. He is the absolute master of the one-sentence snapshot of an artist's characteristics. He once told me he worked especially and self-consciously hard on such snapshots, and they're awfully good. Here's his aperçu of Cole Porter:
He brought to the traditional and somewhat standardized tasks of songsmithing a great verbal ingenuity, a brave flexibility and resourcefulness . . . a cosmopolitan's wide expertise in many mundane matters including foreign lands and tongues, and a spirit that always kept something of collegiate innocence about it.
Yep. A painting by Turner:
White edges of moonlit foam, delicate as lace, define an oval of momentarily concave water rendered with an avid fidelity to its mixture of shadow and translucence. . . . [These] portend Turner's lifelong obsession, to the point of enraptured obscurity, with light in its ephemeral impressions.
You have to marvel. Here, as again and again in Higher Gossip, we're in the presence of one of the best of U.S. prose stylists. As almost always, style is content as well as form - both what he has to say and how he wields American English to say it.
I said above that Updike's main aim is seldom the judgment of good/bad. He can slap stuff that doesn't work, as with a novel by a celebrated U.S. author: "In their ten days of living together, the ten characters generate more chatter than drama." When he disagrees with a book, he has amiably discreet ways of disemboweling it. With Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man, a shambling hatchet job on the New Deal, Updike just reminisces about his own boyhood in the Depression, quietly but indelibly blighting her premises and leaving her book looking small.
More often, the Updike energy bends to bring the object to us (whether it's Vermeer or Vonnegut or Tiger Woods, booksellers or old age) and us to the object. It must have been terrifically hard work, much harder, even, than he often said. Not pontificator but reporter, he went out to have the experience, then turned around and made it available to others. Higher Gossip, once again, makes us grateful, first, for an Updike, and second, for the supple, demotic American English in which he wrote. This book sends us searching for the next generation of cosmopolitan, affirmative writers who will write for all, about almost anything, in spirited, sunlit sentences.