on john updike 02.04.2009, 4:42 PM
posted by dan piepenbring
If:book certainly isn't an obvious venue for a John Updike remembrance. In 2006, his "The End of Authorship" vehemently misconstrued the ideals of digital publishing. At remix culture, he bristled; at collaborative reading, he balked; at the notion of books on screens, he cringed, seeking the refuge of his conventional library and its dusty tomes. In a single, hair-pullingly obtuse sentence, Updike pegged his era's headstrong mentality: "Books traditionally have edges."
At the time, if:book responded, to much less fanfare, with a scorched-earth rebuke in which Updike's entire oeuvre was reduced to "juvenilia," his brain purportedly "addled" by decades upon decades of "hero worship."
Updike, who died last week at 76, came to me on the recommendation of my high school English teacher, shortly after I'd realized that reading was not an altogether painful pastime. I fawned over the glittery prose of his early fiction and promptly tackled the Rabbit tetralogy; soon enough, I was writing the requisite rip-off stories and mimicking his vow "to give the mundane its beautiful due." By now an unseemly number of Updike imitators have weaseled their way into print, but without his delicate touch, the mundane only yields the saccharine.
No detail was too minute for Updike -- he was at his best when he pursued the microcosmic, finding analogs for the Big Questions in the small ones. Atomically, his sentences were as expansive and accommodating as any I've read. At Slate.com, Sven Birkerts eloquently elected him "the sentence guru; he showed me just what lyric accuracy a string of words could accomplish."
Lyric accuracy, indeed. Updike's brand of prose, however stylized, rarely sullied the acuity of his observations. The people and places that he conjured felt alive to me in a way that few had, prior to then. Those worlds were immediate. Puzzlingly, their immediacy materialized from the calm, considered measure of the prose. The perspective of an Updike piece is always enveloping. I'll outsource my thoughts again to Birkerts: "Harry Angstrom working the remains of a caramel from his molar is a straight shunt to the living human now."
Nowadays, I find those tribulations of suburbia moderately less gripping, but some of the passages I marveled over have retained their luster. Though it may be damning it with faint praise, I regard Updike's work as a kind of gateway drug. Certainly it whetted my appetite for capital-L Literature, for words that faced the thrum of contemporary life without further obfuscating it. What he generated in his finest work is the crackle of a full-fledged consciousness, a voice: the sentences have a cadence, the cadence has a tone, and the tone, somehow, becomes human.
His death is, in a sense, another nail in the coffin of a kind of literary vanguard. I can understand why this blog's readership might relish, openly or in private, the extinction of these writers, particularly given the old school's knee-jerk aversion to new methodologies and shifting boundaries. By 2006, as the sensationally-titled "The End of Authorship" attests, it seemed that Updike opposed progress in the humanities more than he furthered it. The voguish sentiment, for better or worse, was disdain for his belletristic ways.
Still, I'm saddened by his passing. Updike and his ilk presided over fiction when more Americans read it, debated it, engaged with it. He took his writing seriously, yes, without proffering it as panacean. By the time I picked him up, to be sure, his heyday had come and gone. Legend has it, though, that the phrase "man of letters" was in those days uttered without an ironic smirk, and that one could reasonably endeavor to devote his or her life to words without appearing highfalutin or deranged. Writers could even expect to see their work in mass-market paperback editions. Imagine that.
I hope that, through the very transformation that Updike disparaged, literature in any and all forms will see an era of renewed relevance, and soon. Even he, after all, regarded books as "an encounter, in silence, of two minds." There's plenty to cavil about, sure -- the degree of silence, the number of minds, the mode of the encounter -- but at an elemental level, his assessment rings true to me. To millions of readers, Updike demonstrated the solicitous vitality of that truth, of those encounters. He will be missed.
Posted by dan piepenbring on February 4, 2009 4:42 PM
Cheryl on February 27, 2009 1:18 AM:
This is one of the best things I've read about Updike's passing. I in no way relish the extinction of his ability with words, which is matched by no modern writer I can think of. His attitude about digital evolution is not of importance- I think writers should focus more on how to capture that kind of greatness in a way that resonates with modern audiences. I'm becoming interested in cellular novels, and I want a 'sentence guru' to gain foothold in that new medium. Currently it is awash in genre fantasy fiction, from what I can tell. Where is the digital Updike?