Exactly three years after his death, it’s sad to see that John Updike has subtly fallen out of fashion, that he is left off best novels lists like the Modern Library’s, and that a faint sense of disapproval clings to his reputation, even as his immense talent is recognized.
In fact, his immense talent is part of what people seemed to find suspect about him in the years before his death. Critics and writers hold the fact that he writes beautiful sentences against him, as if his writing is too well crafted, too flamboyantly, extravagantly good. James Wood wrote a decade ago, “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 what a novelist must convey.” Here one has to wonder about that special handbook of “What a Novelist Must Convey,” and the rules and regulations contained therein.
And yet many other writers over the years have harbored the same odd objection. Take this critique in the New Republic (PDF): “He simply can’t pass up any opportunity to tap dance in prose.” The idea is that we should somehow distrust Updike because he is too good a writer. The word stylish in this way of thinking becomes a slur, as does the word beautiful.
The faux-democratic ideal of plain-spokenness, the sense that a novelist should not write too beautifully or he sacrifices some vaguely articulated, semi-mystical claim to honesty, is not a million miles away from the Sarah Palin-ish suspicion of east coast liberals, or a Harvard education, or people who know the dates of wars. This is not to say that writing beautifully or elaborately is necessary for good fiction, but that one can’t deny that there are writers (Henry James, Nabokov, Flaubert) who write beautiful or elaborate sentences without any sacrifice to some mysterious, indefinable fictional mission.
In an interview with the New York Times’ Sam Tanenhaus a couple of months before his death, Updike addressed this cluster of issues in his own gracious way: “I don’t really think of myself as writing stylishly. I think of myself as trying to write with precision about what my mind’s eye conjures up.” Of course his critics might object to even this phrasing as perhaps a little fancy. Why can’t John Updike speak in plain English? But it is exactly the poetic precision in his writing that his critics seem to find so unnerving.
Updike has also been repeatedly attacked for “misogyny,” for two-dimensional women, for mistreating his lady characters. (Frederick Crews complains that Updike’s male characters are “routinely unfaithful, maddeningly indecisive and self-absorbed”; David Foster Wallace calls them “incorrigibly narcissistic, philandering, self-contemptuous and self-pitying ... they never really love anybody.”) These characters are not, in this view, very lovely to their wives and girlfriends. But even if this is true, and it’s arguably not the full and nuanced truth, this has always seemed to me a strange objection, as great novels from Crime and Punishment to Lolita to Wings of the Dove often delve into the consciousness of someone not quite savory. In fact, novels portraying the minds of totally fair minded, upstanding, liberal people with very few conflicts about conventional life, who treat everyone around them extremely nicely, seem destined or at least highly likely to be sort of blah.