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.
The writer’s obligation, surely, is to write a charismatic, interesting, illuminating novel about, really, anyone. But this idea that Updike has the responsibilities of a senator, or school principal, or pastor toward his fictional universe, an obligation for fairness and justice to all of his characters, for a clear-sighted, unwavering morality that extends over his New England and Pennsylvania towns, and even in a surprising number of critical briefs against him, for well rounded theological positions, perversely endures.
Updike offers his own engaging mea culpa about his relation to women in a poem: “I drank up women’s tears and spat them out/ as 10-point Janson, Roman, and Ital.” This seems, however, more of an indictment of the way writers treat other people, male and female, than a confession of his sexist attitudes. Do writers use and arguably exploit those around them? Of course. Is there something unappealing or ruthless about this way of existing in the world? Of course, again. But this is not a commentary on Updike and his uses of female experience so much as a description of the writer’s life (see female writers like Sylvia Plath or Mary McCarthy), and if Updike addresses this moral dubiousness honestly and head-on that should be to his credit.
From the beginning, Updike wrote about trying to defeat death or mortality through affairs, through the intensity of sex, which is one of the things David Foster Wallace in particular criticizes him for. Updike describes an affair in Toward the End of Time: “Its colorful weave of carnal revelation and intoxicating risk and craven guilt eclipsed the devouring gray sensation of time.”
This sense of using sex, or the creation of many lives, through affairs, and mistresses, transcending the limits of one small, suburban existence through sex, runs through Updike’s writing from the beginning. In one story he has an amazing description of a man running into a former mistress: “I felt in her presence the fear of death a man feels with a woman who once opened herself to him and is available no more.”
And so it is as someone who has always resisted, written around, plotted against and fought the idea of death, that he writes movingly about its proximity in his last book, a remarkable collection of poems, Endpoint.
The poems, which he wrote as he was dying, have an alarming clarity to them, a cool descriptiveness. He is still interested in the ironies, still interested in the celebration and the blooming style. He wrote the following a month before he died about a CAT scan and needle biopsy, and the pleasant clouding of Valium:
I heard machines and experts murmuring about me—
A dulcet tube in which I lay secure and warm
And thought creative thoughts, intensely so,
As in my fading prime. Plans flowered, dreams.
All would be well, I felt, all manner of thing.
The needle, carefully worked, was in me, beyond pain,
Aimed at the adrenal gland. I had not hoped
to find in this bright place, so solvent a peace.
Days later, the results came casually through:
The gland, biopsied, showed metastasis.*
In another one of his last poems he wrote, “be with me words, a little longer.” And after three years in an Updikeless world, one wishes the same thing.
*Correction, Jan. 27, 2012: This article originally misprinted the sixth line of the poem as "The need, carefully worked, as in me ..."