January 27, 2009


Erik Prime

John Updike was America's best living writer, a wordsmith of incomparable talents and longevity. His use of the English language frequently leaves me speechless.

My wife and I were honored to meet John on November 13th of last year. His wit was sharper than a box of razor blades, and shaking the hand that wrote the Rabbit novels was a thrill I will never forget.

Afterwards, I joked to my wife that I was never going to wash my hand. Her rebuttal was, "How are you going to write something for Updike to review in the New Yorker?


Were you a fan, Mark? I thought of him while reading your novel, which I've been meaning to tell you I enjoyed.


Fan is a bit strong, perhaps, Stephan but I was definitely an admirer. I couldn't always get worked up about his arena of concerns, and I sometimes felt that the vast output resulted in, necessarily, I suppose, some real gaps of quality. But I loved Rabbit (which I got to quite late), am wild about many of the stories, and like much, though, for sure not all, of this criticism. His rules of reviewing have guided me ever since I heard them. And thanks for the kind words about my book. One of the nicest things I heard was when one editor called Harry a 21st century Rabbit.

Dagger DiGorro

It is hard to think of that mind lying dormant. It's enough to inspire belief in the afterlife.

It is worth noting, I think, how Updike presided over the literary culture in every way but the superficial ones. There was nothing self-consciously "serious" about him - except his writing.

I almost never opened a New Yorker without first checking whether the issue included a story or review by him. I suspect I'm not alone. I first read him as a teenager - a used copy of Couples l pulled off someone's shelf - and l'm 38 now, and without being a completist, or even always an admirer, l've always felt his presence as a measuring stick (as ugly a metaphor as that is) of intelligence and aplomb.

I can picture him in the hospice in his last hours or days, perhaps deprived of speech, but conscious of the ironies of having written so many death scenes of men just like himself, and perhaps only now understanding something, something...


Our thoughts are similar. Loved many of the stories, and got to Rabbit late -- just a couple years ago in Ukraine. If the book was PG13, it would have been wonderful from cover to cover. But the sex scenes made it an R and, in places, unintentionally funny. Maybe the once daring doesn't age well. I look forward to getting to the latter Rabbit installments, because the guy could craft a sentence and build a flow of sounds. Anyways, it was Rabbit, Run that came to my mind when I was reading Harry. Hope the 2nd novel is coming along well.

David J. Clarke

At death's door sentimentality returns. Having recently posted an excerpt from James Walcott's Updike review and lauded it as 'snark as art' this faint praise with Updike's passing seems less than genuine. You should read again Denby's book; Walcott is full of snark but to praise it as art has all the advantages of theft over honest toil. It is fine and necessary to take a lionized writer to task (think David Foster Wallace on Updike); but heralding a venomous piece with literally no literary value simply because it elevates nastiness to a form of 'art' seems to betray a politics of resentment for both yourself and Walcott. Walcott is doubly resentful; he wishes he both had literary talent and the reviewing prowess of James Wood.

It's especially vitriolic given that Updike was well known for trying to always find something of value in works he clearly did not highly esteem. But Updike never engaged in snark; talent is its own reward, something Mr. Walcott surely recognizes he lacks with every review.


David, your post is both mean-spirited and narrow minded - the resentment is all yours. As my earlier comment makes clear, I thought Updike's work was uneven, especially recently. And I don't think any author, dead or alive, can't be held to tough standards (and Walcott's review is much better than you give it credit for; presumably you hate Hitchens' review of Terrorist for similar reasons?). The timing of the posting is, indeed, unfortunate, but my noting the review scarcely eradicates my affection for a lifetime worth of work, and it's awfully cynical of you to suggest otherwise.

David J. Clarke

On the contrary, my post is precisely neither mean-spirited nor narrow minded. What I called out was that Snark as practiced by Mr. Walcott is worthy of neither the praise of craft or art. It may yield pleasure in the same way that all snark does; it uses a series of codes that less than subtly mask that nearly all snark is just thinly disguised ad hominem. Again, the contrast to Wood was not chosen lightly; Wood can often be harsh and very critical but he does it from a position of committment to the passion of literature and his recognition of what, when at his / her best, the author can contribute. In short it it not about facial or other physical aspects of the author; it is nearly always directly from the text or a related text or author (intertextuality). In short, it is based on passionate committment to the betterment of the form as an aesthetic genre; not a chance to personally deride an author because they have not lived up to thei greatest work. Read Zadie Smith's review of the Rabbit series and then let lit be. Comments such as 'his work was uneven' as are penetrating and uniform praise from PR firm quotes solicted for the back jacket.

As to my putative cynicism, I have no gain, financial, literary or otherwise in making these comments. I'm merely fed up with the ubiquity of Snark as a substitute for actual criticism. The only upside is that the Snark will be flushed into Hume's dustbin of history at record speed whereas Wood (and a few others) will still be read as serious criticism by future generations.


>Comments such as 'his work was uneven' as are penetrating and uniform praise from PR firm quotes solicted for the back jacket.

I assume that you consider "a venomous piece with literally no literary value" to be somehow a genuinely penetrating observation? Given that your assertion is backed up by precisely zero textual reference? And it's fatuous of you to compare an offhand comment between friends on a backblog to a piece of considered criticism like Smith's.

The cynicism to which I referred (and which you continue to display) had nothing to with Walcott, with whom you clearly have a serious beef (and are entitled to). Your cyncism can be found in our mean-spirited assertion that my praise for Updike is somehow fradulent because I also enjoyed Walcott's review. Go and read up on negative capability, and spare me your righteousness, please. There are better blogs for you to express so Manichean a world view on, and I urge you to seek them out. Clearly, we will have to agree to disagree here.

Alvy Singer

Mr. Clarke confuses, I think, being critical with an ouevre and hating an author. This is a very simplistic way of see criticism, and specially literary criticism.

I admire Updike a lot and the notice of his dead was so sad. He was one of our literary heros. It's obvious that Wolcott thinks the same too.

But it happened something very common: his latest work was the most unsurprising. For example, I can't finish the Memories of the Ford Administration because of his narration in a near-coitus interruptus mode. He can't controll his description talent and can't even know about how to tell a story. He's blocked and the novel lacks of all the Updike appealings.

I enjoyed Terrorist and I think it's a good door to enterint the Updikeverse, and a near-parody one in some cases, as Mr. Wolcott and Mr. Wood have pointed. But this is a Updike best seller, a very contemporary one, with his sex scenes and his humanistic optimism. It's good in the times for 24, read an episode without Jack Bauer and with Jack Levy. Off course, in his literature I admire a lot his Rabbit series and his last work is simply no comparable to that, his little hommage to the Nathanael West novels called In the beauty of the liles and his great short stories (The AfterLife is one of his best books and The Early Stories is impressing too). His poetry is also very readable and has some beautiful passages. And his literary criticism and essays are vividly smart with a poignancy that reminds me the best of Henry James (another full reader and writer). I tried to read the widows of eastwick in the library of my university and was available in english because the translation has not arrived in Spain yet and... it lacked the realism, his effective eye, or the vivid atmosphere of his exuberant first one and his best works. I twas pessimistic but very far from the nowadays.

Jin Hanshen

John Updikes is the area of my study. I have organized dozens of scholars to write about him and his works.
To conmemmorate this great man of letters of the modern United States, we are determined to work harder, so that we have our project of study finished and the work published by the end of the sad 2009.
Jin Hanshen from China

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