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Critic's Notebook: 'Higher Gossip' and 'Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts'

The John Updike and William H. Gass titles lay out contrasting ideas on criticism.

January 29, 2012|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • Author William H. Gass.
Author William H. Gass. (Joyce Ravid )

Higher Gossip

John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf: 502 pp., $40

Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts

William H. Gass

Alfred A. Knopf: 350 pp., $28.95

Partway through "Higher Gossip," the seventh and final collection of reviews and occasional pieces by the late John Updike, I began to understand the problem I've always had with the author's work. It's pleasant enough — congenial, intelligent, fluidly written — but only rarely is it great. As to why this is, "Higher Gossip" offers an unintended answer by revealing not so much the range of Updike's interests as the chatty conventionality of his ideas. The title, editor Christopher Carduff notes, reflects Updike's sense of reviewing as "'gossip of a higher sort' — the dirt dished out by a trusted and stylish confidant who got to the party early, who read the book in uncorrected galleys or saw the exhibition as the last wall label was going up … 'a wise and presentable man,' Updike calls him, 'in suit and tie.'" The image is telling, suggesting the limitations that define his career.

Updike was our most hit-or-miss major writer; even his best works are testaments to a kind of middle-class timidity, a reticence about the wilder edges of the world. "Rabbit, Run" is a perfect example; published in 1960, the novel was conceived in part as a response to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," which, "without reading it," Updike "resented … [for] its apparent instruction to cut loose." The interesting thing is what this says about Updike's conservatism, which emerges throughout the book. Even its most transgressive scene, which records its protagonist's initiation into oral sex, is less notable for the act it details (which, by 1960, had been described by plenty of writers) than for the author's reluctance to call it by its name.

A similar conservatism marks "Higher Gossip" — not just what it gathers but also its sensibility. This is a book meant not to challenge but to confirm, and to confirm not an aesthetic vision but a sense of fellowship. And what is the nature of this fellowship? It grows out of a fallacious premise, that criticism is the expression of a collective, as opposed to an individual, worldview. Again and again, Updike backs away from the personal, invoking it only in the realm of anecdote: reflections on getting older; asides, in takes on Blake Bailey's biography of John Cheever or the Library of America's William Maxwell retrospectives, about his relationships with both men, which make those pieces read more like reminiscences than reviews.

When it comes to literature and art ("Higher Gossip" features more than 150 pages of gallery and museum reviews, most from the New York Review of Books, where Updike was a regular art critic for nearly 20 years), there is little that's surprising or imparts much intensity. To some extent, this is because Updike saw himself as a working writer, a "freelancer," as he liked to put it, which means that many of these efforts read like assignments, reviews that needed to be done. That's especially true of the book pieces, which appeared in the New Yorker between 2006 and 2009, and often seem linked by no other organizing principle than chronology.

I don't mean to be unsympathetic; I do this for a living and I know the challenges of writing week in and week out. But what is the purpose of criticism without passion? Why collect reviews of books (Fred E. Basten's biography of Max Factor, for instance, or Andrew Sean Greer's "The Story of a Marriage") that were covered, first and foremost, because they had been published? Even when Updike has a point to make, he all too often falls back on truism, which he frames as shared assumption — that idea of "higher gossip" once again.

"[A]s Morrison moves deeper into a more visionary realism," he writes of Toni Morrison's 2008 novel "A Mercy," "a betranced pessimism saps her plots of the urgency that hope imparts to human adventures." This is a lovely sentence, but is it really true? If hope is the source of both plot and urgency, then where does that leave Kafka, Beckett, Nietzsche, Malcolm Lowry?

I mention these writers because, along with a number of others, they occupy William H. Gass' "Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts," a collection that hints at another way of approaching the critical enterprise. Gass, like Updike, has long balanced the roles of critic and novelist, although with him, there's a real divide in the writing — the criticism is fluid, pointed, exuberant, while the fiction is too schematic, too representative of theory and not enough of flesh and blood.

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