Tuesday, January 27, 2009

RIP - John Updike

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must point out that I have never been able to finish a John Updike novel. I've tried many times, and each time I came up empty. It's possible that my tastes are simply not compatible with Updike's very thick (as opposed to dense) style, although I doubt it, as I'm a fan of many writers whose writing could be similarly described. I don't know what it is, but I'm not going to choose the occasion of his passing to try and figure it out.

Because really, my opinion of Updike's fiction doesn't matter. He has made his mark on the vast landscape of American literature -- not just that of the 20th century, but the whole of it. Since I've been aware of him, he -- along with Roth, Bellow, and a few others -- were considered the gold standard, and each of them have achieved immortality. They will be read for centuries, and their humbling prolificacy, particularly Updike's (although lately Roth is really cranking them out himself) showed what it really meant to be a writer, and to live as a writer: in short, for that to be what you are.

Updike's output is truly staggering: 27 novels, 13 collections of short fiction, 9 collections of poetry, 10 collections of essays, and 1 play. He won two Pulitzer prizes, for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, and was perversely denied the Nobel Prize, I guess so the committee could squeeze in Dario Fo and Elfriede Jelinek. His last (or most recent, at least; who knows how many unpublished books are on their way) novel is The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his famous The Witches of Eastwick. That was published last year. His last (or most recent) collection of stories is slated for this year, and is called My Father's Tears and Other Stories.

As someone who does not count himself among Updike's legion of fans (which is not necessarily the same as "admirers", among whose number I do count myself), I can say without hesitation that Updike was unquestionably a giant of American fiction.



Krauthammer said...


bill r. said...

Yeah, I know. For some reason, you just don't expect guys like Updike to die, and then they do.

Greg said...

I've not read Updike myself but my roommate in college loved the Rabbit books. He thought they were amazing.

I did read some of his poetry in high school but was probably too young to appreciate or get any of it as none of it has stayed with me.

John Self said...

I don't think it would constitute speaking ill of the dead, or even be controversial, to say that Updike's output was wildly variable. Or at least that if his sentences always held up, his books didn't. Even the Rabbit series was up and down, for me, the best volumes being the first and last.

Someone on my blog recommended Updike's Bech books as a good legacy. These are series of stories about a writer, in a comical vein. I read a few many years ago but may now revisit them.

I'm also not too outraged at Updike never getting the Nobel. Roth: that's another matter.

bill r. said...

I really want to read the "Bech" stories. For a while, I've thought those might be the make-it-or-break-it stories as far as Updike and me go. If I don't like those, maybe I should just call it a day.

I wouldn't say I'm outraged about Updike not getting the Nobel, but it IS perverse. And if I thought there was any good reason apart from the fact that Updike was an American (and John, you know I'm not just being paranoid about this), then I could probably let it slide.

I wonder if Updike's death will spur the committee to rethink their unofficial policy, before they lose Roth, too.

Anonymous said...

I am saddened by Updike's death, even though I haven't read much of his output. Like you said, you don't expect guys like Updike (or Paul Newman) to die, but then they do.

Patricia Perry said...

I've read a bit of Updike. Because I so hate the way he write female characters, it's hard for me to fully appreciate other aspects of his work. One of his last novels, "Terrorist" was a great disappointment to me.

In spite of all that, I found your post appropriately respectful, and I'm with you - just because I wasn't an Updike fan doesn't diminish his importance.