The novelist and critic John Updike has died at seventy-six of lung cancer in a hospice outside Boston.
I have never been an Updike fan, and have criticized him repeatedly on this Commonplace Blog. See here and here and here and here. He stood for a conception of literature, an approach to both the novel and criticism, that has exercised a corrupting influence. More perhaps than anyone since the Second World War, Updike championed a highly “literary” fiction, precious, breathy, self-congratulatorily “beautiful,” that was largely an effort to dress up and give a good name to the novel of moral uplift. He was E. D. E. N. Southworth or Susan Warner with a fancy prose style. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times obituary writer, quotes James Wood’s opinion: “He is a prose writer of great beauty, but that prose confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough, and whether beauty always conveys all that a novelist must convey.” But I am unwilling to grant Wood’s premise.
Here is the famous scene at the beginning of Rabbit, Run in which the former high-school basketball star, now twenty-six, joins a boys’ pickup game. He is watching from the sidelines when the ball clanks off the rim and lands at his feet.
And this doesn’t even glance at the creep of the passage. Reading it, you say under your breath, “Shoot the damn thing already.” You expect one of the boys to dart over and swat the ball out of Rabbit’s hands. (Rabbit? He makes Shaquille O’Neal seem quick.)
But I ought to speak with respect of the dead. Updike was a helpful and sometimes even penetrating critic, given the limitations of his own conception of literature. His best novel, for my money, is the early Centaur (1963). A teacher’s son, he wrote with understanding of the teacher’s role and life. He may have written too much, but the fact that he kept writing suggests that he did not look upon perfection of the work as the writer’s purpose. His purpose was simply to live with words—with thoughts turned into words, as he somewhat imprecisely put it. Even if his own writing did not appeal to you, you had to wish for more such men with such an unshakable commitment to literature.
Yitgadal v'yitkadash. . . .