Lorrie Moore’s splendid little piece, “The Complete Updike,” on the NY Times op ed page on Jan. 28, 2009, reminds me that there are writers and there are super writers. John Updike (1932-2009) was in the super category. The only other American author I can think of — top of the head — who belongs in that category is Philip Roth.
Updike’s famous and enormously under-rated little dictum of ‘three finished pages a day is a whole lot harder than it sounds. Try it. For a week. See if your three pages look finished or merely typed.
Updike had the eye-memory coordination that allowed him to describe almost anything in precise detail. Try it sometime, writers. See if your description of objects and actions and faces turns out vivid or pedestrian. See how many times you ask yourself, “What is that thing called?” Like Flaubert — whom I’ve barely read, but who’s widely considered the first great master of realistic fictional detail — Updike made the world of things and people and places come alive. Sex, of course. (“The Transaction.” Couples. ) Places. His prose could rise to the high diction, the sweet music of poetry. He broke your heart describing the way the Maples told their children that they were going to get divorced. He “got” big cities, small town, farms, suburbs, exurbs, malls and airline waiting terminals. He got New York and Shillington, Pennsylvania, and Miami Beach. He got young jerks (as does the wonderful Richard Ford). And he got old fools: variations on the jerky sides of Updike. His avator, the depressive tumler Jewish novelist Beck, got to interview his “real” self, the suburban WASP star novelist John Updike.
The Nobel Committee is no more infallible that the Pope. The committee failed to award the great and learned and graceful and often profound Updike the prize he deserved. Thirty years ago, when I interviewed Henry Miller, I asked him why he’d never won a Nobel. He told me that someone on the committee thought he was a pornographer. Miller said he didn’t care — but he could have used the cash.
In my eyes — and I’m certain in the eyes of so many of our great authors (see Lorrie Moore’s touching op ed in the NY Times) — Updike was in every way a Nobel Prize winner. But the prejudice against American authors — that they’re somehow less worldly or more provincial than, say, authors from New Zealand or South Africa (I adore Coetzee) or Portugal. It’s just plain silly and condescending, no less than it was when the British snubbed Melville’s Moby-Dick in the 1850’s because whale oil is identified as the substance anointing a king. How absurd an objection, and one I can imagine that would have amused Mark Twain.
Maybe Updike’s snub will be good news for the other American literary giant, Philip Roth. I had the good fortune to be his student at UPenn in a world lit class in the spring of l965. He knew verimsilitude. He explained what Tolstoy was doing when he showed us Vronsky’s muscularity, and when he averted his eyes from Anna’s sex scene. He wanted to cast Groucho as the lead in Kafka’s The Castle. He duck-walked into class, although probably just one time. (It has been more than 30 years since.)
I was editing a magazine called Mankind (I know — no one’s heard of it) when Saul Bellow’s Nobel was announced in 1976. I immediately called his office in Chicago. His secretary said he was home, and that he’d cut himself shaving. Bellow’s prize made me proud. I was 30-something, but so what? I felt like a fan, which I was. Which I am. Which I have always been. Which I always will be.
So maybe the Nobel snobs in their stubborn snubbery will do what sports referees do when they’re hectored by furious coaches for missing a call. That coach’s team seems to always get the next call. Maybe it’ll be that way for American authors. For ever since before Washington Irving, American writers were tarred with the prejudice that this is a country of provincial rubes, and it’s therefore no great shakes to write a novel about this cultural backwater.
Say, World. I know you were watching when Aretha sang at the Obama inaugural. How about a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T for our authors?
Well, I’ve got three words for you, World: The Great Gatsby.
I’ve got a list of authors for you, Sweden: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, Bellow, Morrison, Updike, Roth.
You want poets, World? You want a piece of me? Whitman, Dickinson, Pound, Frost, Stevens, William Carlos Williams.
So here’s to you, Mr. Updike. Rabbit is finally at rest.
(The NY Times featured a videotaped conversation with John Updike in October 2008.)