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Why death doesn't end the debate on Updike

February 17, 2009|Scott Timberg

In an often-overlooked 1992 novel with perhaps the most intentionally dull title in literary history -- "Memories of the Ford Administration" -- John Updike has fun with an issue that long deviled his career. He introduces a character named Brent Mueller, a "rapid-speaking fellow with the clammy white skin of the library bound" who had "deconstructed Chaucer right down to the ground."

Mueller serves as antagonist to the novel's narrator -- both are professors at a New Hampshire college -- and becomes a campus cult figure by deeming every masterpiece "a relic of centuries of white male oppression, to be touched as gingerly as radioactive garbage." The protagonist, in return, cuckolds the deconstructionist throughout the book.

This was the author's way of playfully pushing back at his critics and detractors.

Updike's death last month was met with the usual fulsome praise and sighs of sadness. But the writer, who was regarded as a gracious, decent man, was not unanimously loved or respected in the literary world. Over the years, he had become a symbol of the out-of-touch, tweed-wearing realist to younger, more experimental writers, a lightning rod for arguments over what contemporary fiction should be.

Updike was attacked by both figures from the cultural right (Norman Podhoretz, Tom Wolfe) and left (Sven Birkerts, Cynthia Ozick). Harold Bloom damned him as "a minor novelist with a major style," while James Wood, possibly the most influential critic of his generation, slashed the "provincial" and "complacent" Updike every chance he got.

"This astonishingly gifted and creatively vital writer, who started to 'win' at the age of 22 when the New Yorker bought a story and a poem that he had submitted," wrote Lee Siegel on the Daily Beast, "this literary genius had, by the end of his career, become either a target of ridicule or been forgotten by literary culture altogether."

For many, Updike was perhaps the most famous American writer. His quartet of novels about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom are on a very short list of postwar books that rank in the antique category of the Great American Novel.

He was widely admired for his stories, many of which chronicled what he called "the American Protestant small-town middle class," as well as his literary and art criticism and his sheer output.

"Maybe we're all jealous of him because he was so prolific," offered Mona Simpson, a novelist and UCLA English professor and an admirer of Updike's Maples stories. Indeed, even in death, he continues to publish: "Endpoint and Other Poems" comes out in April, and "My Father's Tears and Other Stories" will appear in June.

Few challenge the beauty of Updike's writing. But this has led to one of the main charges: that his was a style without substance. David Lipsky, writing in "The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors," judged that Updike, despite being "the most successful literary writer of his era," induced discomfort and impatience: "He's probably still the best word-by-word, thought-by-thought, sentence-by-sentence writer we have, but isn't it time he moved on?"

Others considered his subject matter too lightweight. Unlike novelists who tackled conspiracy, assassination, drugs, politics, mass murder, war and the whirl of pop culture, Updike aimed "to give the mundane its beautiful due."

Two writers dedicated to extreme and public subjects were among his harshest critics. Norman Mailer called Updike "the kind of author appreciated by readers who knew nothing about writing." Don DeLillo, author of sweeping works such as "Libra" and "Underworld," said he wrote novels that took place "around the house and in the yard."

"There's this false narrative," said Samuel Cohen, assistant professor of contemporary literature at the University of Missouri, "that the history of 20th century American literature is about moving further and further from realism." The bias goes back, Cohen said, at least as far as Frank Norris, exponent of a rugged naturalism, who dismissed the realist writing of his day as the drama of broken teacups.

By the late 1960s and 1970s, Cohen said, realism is "seen as aesthetically reactionary. If you're not a fabulist or a postmodernist, you're writing in an old-fashioned, boring way."

Perhaps the most famous attack came from David Foster Wallace. In a now-notorious 1997 essay for the New York Observer, he tarred Updike, Mailer and Philip Roth as the Great Male Narcissists, or GMNs. "Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40," he wrote, "and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar GMNs. But it's John Updike in particular that a lot of them seem to hate. And not merely his books for some reason -- mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back."

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