updike's tattoo 06.07.2006, 12:41 AM
posted by roger sperberg
I was startled but not surprised to read about John Updike's denigration of the future of ebooks at BookExpo. Had he tattooed it on his forehead he couldn't have made clearer his idealization of 19th-century structures and modes of thinking. His talk represented the final glorification of the author/artist/creator as a higher being ingrained with heroic capabilities unapproachable by mere mortals. For Updike and all those unable to cross into the new Canaan of electronicity, the apotheosis of the artist fits into the tradition of history as a history of heroes. There are but a few gods of literature as is only natural, I expected him to say, and if you have art made by whole masses of people, many of them unidentifiable, we'll have regressed to the period of Notre Dame cathedral or the Pyramids, in which no individuals were glorified for their contributions to art or to the era when writing went unsigned or when the writer assumed the mantle of some greater person, to glorify them and spread their thinking.*
This hero worship that Updike has wallowed in for the last 40 years has addled his brain. Reading some of his remarks reminded me of a screed published in the Saturday Review of Literature back in the 1970's, if memory serves, by Louis Untermeyer, decrying the abominably inadequate generation of poets who couldn't use rhyme or rhythm to make their way out of a paperbag. The rant was entertaining and almost credible in its denunciations — except for Untermeyer's having chosen one of the great poems of the 20th century — Frank O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" — as his example of the witless drivel this shiftless new generation was producing. Untermeyer and Updike belong to the same class of critic as the French academicians who dismissed the Impressionists or the Fauves ("wild beasts"), blind to the future and in love with their own tinny emulation of the greater artists who preceded them. (Who will put Updike in the same list as Tolstoy or Faulkner or Fielding or Isak Dinesen? They made new forms, indelibly, while the best that can be said of Updike is that he stood alone as a prolific writer of magazine pieces.)
It's been said** that new scientific theories don't win over their opponents so much as they are accepted by the new generation and the old generation dies off. The same holds true in art, of course. The precocious writers of the coming generation will cut their teeth on blogs and networked books and media that will require visual acuity and improvisational methods that make Updike's juvenilia*** feel as antiquated as William Dean Howells or James Fenimore Cooper. A living fossil. What a fall from the pantheon he occupies in his imagination.
* I'm thinking specifically of the authors of Revelations and several of the Gnostic gospels.
** Apparently most authoritatively in Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Updike's remarks provide striking evidence of Kuhn's theory of incommensurability of paradigms — if you are fully caught up in the old paradigm you have no way of assessing the new, lacking common values, language and experience with its proponents.
*** Updike has published, what, 36 books of fiction? We'll be generous and include the first quarter in this categorization.
Lee Burchfield on June 7, 2006 8:35 AM:
Well, I'm disappointed.
I suppose I was trained in a nineteenth-century tradition, but my paradigm requires that distasteful ideas be rebutted by disproving them. Your ad hominem against Updike is vitriolic and disproportionate. Seriously, name-calling?
I'm restraining myself . . . what I'd really like to say is that your rant "was entertaining and almost credible in its denunciations . . . ."
Please, aim higher.
P.S. And for the record, people do put Updike in the same list as Faulkner. If you don't like that, perhaps tomorrow you could call them names?
Roger Sperberg on June 7, 2006 11:44 AM:
You can't "prove" a new paradigm using the old paradigm's values. By Untermeyer's values, O'Hara was a lousy poet. It's just that Untermeyer didn't accept that poetry had moved beyond his familiarity into something relevant for the times. Ditto the academicians vis-a-vis the Impressionists. Ditto Updike vis-a-vis the form of the book.
You think Updike did anything more than provide a brilliant sheen to the existing forms, and can be compared to Faulkner in his contributions? That, I think, still needs to be proved. OK -- personally I find Updike overrated and hence (pertinent to this discussion) his opinions on various topics over-valued. If he were dismissing Kevin Kelly's writing or GAM3R 7H3ORY's insights into our culture, then we would have a discussion. But he was talking about what he does not know and he clearly demonstrated that he can't stretch far enough to understand what this future is going to be like (as far as we can tell from this vantage point).
So I was dismissive. He deserved it.
Daniel Anderson on June 7, 2006 11:45 AM:
The links to the podcast and to the DPP store are helpful for giving more context to the recent e-book discussions. Thanks.
But, I also have to say that I think it's possible to listen to the Updike podcast and reach a more charitable conclusion. I blogged something this morning mentioning that what I pick up on in the Updike is a desire for the physical, his reflections on book shops suggest another perspective on e-books not to be dismissed so readily, the notion on how far to extend our cyborg identities as we trumpet and roll out and along with new technologies.
I may be misreading Updike's speech, but my sense is that he may have an underlying disquiet with what gets lost on a personal and physical level. I also think we attribute this to nostalgia or technophobia at the risk of honestly exploring how e-books merely stand-in as markers for the larger questions of technical mediation. I wouldn't presume to have the answers for the human/machine conundrums, but thinking about them makes me want to (not grab a book) but perhaps go for a sandwich and then maybe mow the grass in the front yard.
Rebecca on June 7, 2006 1:37 PM:
A valid point - apart from the self-defeating denigration of Updike's body of work. Apparently your beef is with Updike's views on publishing. Why, then, diminish your point by attacking the work of a literary artist whose opus counts among the most significant literary contributions of the second half of the 20th century?
Updike hardly needs me to defend him, but if there's any living American writer whose work has the staying power and fundamental originality that more extreme experimenters with form often lack, it's he. By lumping together his fiction with his extra-fictional ideas, you confuse a rather important distinction between art and artist. Moreover, by dismissing him without any serious critique as a "prolific writer of magazine pieces," you not only fail to engage his legitimately debatable views on publishing, but leave the impression that you haven't actually given fair attention to (or read in depth?) a novelist whom Nabokov - likely another cranky traditionalist, to your mind - called one of America's two "finest artists in recent years."
The lionization of what you call the "gods of literature" may be a construct, but it is no less a construct than the promotion of other worthy ideas like communal authorship. More productive than a blanket dismissal of such constructs would be a consideration of the part they do play in encouraging innovation. In the case of the writers you dismiss as "living fossils," such a construct has proven fairly fertile. It would be far wiser to learn from and build upon that tradition than to trash it in favor of an as-yet-unproven idea.
Roger Sperberg on June 7, 2006 6:17 PM:
I wrote a response that filled out why I think Updike is something of our Bouguereau, whom later times have paid little attention to with the Monets, Manets and van Goghs there to appreciate.
But it doesn't seem fruitful to talk about Updike's writing or rank in the Top 100 Writers list. Instead, let me repeat that his remarks clearly demonstrate a complete lack of shared values, language and experience with those who are interested in moving to the book we will all read in the future.
To paraphrase something I wrote elsewhere, the books in the Library of the Future will be more like Paul Ford's Ftrain than like anything in Updike's oeuvre. Everything he writes, however brilliant it is in comparison to contemporary work, will appear to the future as flat and two-dimensional as all the art before Giotto and Duccio. Updike doesn't know how to access those other dimensions (me neither — but at least I'm aware of them) and he will always be on the one side of a very clear demarcation in the history of writing.
ben vershbow on June 7, 2006 6:30 PM:
Roger's main point here is about the shifting role of the author. It's worth reiterating that Updike's remarks at BookExpo were in response to Kevin Kelly's article in the Times magazine, which exalted search engines as the potential liberators of literature. "The book revolution," replied Updike, "which from the Renaissance on taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling pod of snippets." This is not an interesting debate, issuing as it does from two entrenched elites: Updike, at the top of the literary establishment, and Kelly, former Wired editor, the techno-sage/consultant, reinventing capitalism for the Internet. On the surface, Kelly would seem to be an advocate for new forms of collaborative production (the sort of thing we're interested in here) but his interest lies primarily in their economic potential -- collaborative consumption -- and mostly for the big guys like Google.
We need more voices from the trenches of everyday reality and hands-on experimentation -- individuals working collectively, collectives empowering individuals; and voices rooted in the present, not in some nostalgic idea of the past or some exultant gospel of the future. I like to think of the work we're doing with Ken Wark on GAM3R 7H30RY (and the stuff Roger's thinking about) as dwelling precisely in that exciting and confusing present, a time of transition and contradiction. In many ways, opening up the writing process in G.7. has affirmed the importance of both the individual voice and the collective. That's why these are interesting times. We've put reading and writing on their toes. Updike and Kelly are in their respective safe territories, within fortresses of prestige, speaking for few of us.
Chris Boese on June 25, 2006 10:03 PM:
I just enjoyed the well-earned snark at Updike, who for many of us seems to publish too much that is too easily forgetable. I took my own shots at him for the ill-conceived remarks at the Book Expo, but I found Roger's cheap shots infinitely more satisfying.
Roger Sperberg on June 28, 2006 3:10 PM:
I guess that's about the best left-handed compliment one could get. Thanks.
Thanks even more for pointing out in your blog that Dan Gilmor's "We the Media" is available online. I need to keep in mind that a blog should temper its opinionating with some hard, unassailably useful facts. Then a reader can walk away with something useful even if the cheap shots don't satisfy.