Updike’s Detailed Americana Will Endure

by | Feb 2, 2009

“It is impossible to imagine a less complacent major writer.” -Thomas McGuane

Charles McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote a lovely piece in honor of John Updike. It ran in Sunday’s edition.

McGrath points to an outpouring of tributes from writers, including Gish Jen, Julian Barnes, John Irving, Jeffrey Eugenides, Richard Ford, Paul Theroux, T. C. Boyle, Antonya Nelson, George Saunders, ZZ Packer, Thomas McGuane, Lorrie Moore and Joyce Carol Oates. In his own tribute, he notes:

What other writers, young and old, prized most about Mr. Updike was his prose — that amazing instrument, like a jeweler’s loupe; so precise, exquisitely attentive and seemingly effortless. If there were a pill you could take to write like that, who wouldn’t swallow a handful? Equally inspiring was his faith in the writing itself. He toyed once or twice with magic realism, but the experiment never really worked and he gave it up. Though he loved Jorge Luis Borges, he didn’t in his own work go in for Borgesian mirror games, and he was free from the postmodern anxiety about the fictiveness of fiction, the unreliability of language. He was an old-fashioned realist, with an unswerving belief in the power of words to faithfully record experience and to enhance it. If other writers, younger ones especially, couldn’t quite subscribe to that belief, still it was reassuring to know that there was someone who did.

And other writers surely admired — and maybe envied a little — Mr. Updike’s success, his ability to make a living just from the fashioning of sentences, without selling out himself or others. He seldom took an advance and he never tailored his work to suit the fashion. The literary life as he led it seemed a higher calling, not a grubby one.

One of the things I admire in Updike’s approach is the wide net he cast. We think of him as a novelist, but he also wrote letters, essays, journalism, poems, reviews, and short stories.