Updike’s Marginalia: the Writer as Reader

Great writers make demands on our time and energy which is why, to be absolutely frank, they can be so annoying.

Readers of John Updike will know what I mean when I say that the man, who has all the virtues a writer could want, is just too much. He’s too glib, too polished, too prolific, too kind-hearted, too equanimous, too wide-ranging, too tolerant, too knowledgeable, and, if this can be considered a fault, too good to be true. He’s so consistently and abundantly and unceasingly excellent you often want to throttle him. Of his 33 books of fiction, I’ve read 10; so I feel like I’m only on the foothills approaching Everest. As far as I can tell from my sea-level vantage point, he’s never written an inelegant sentence (although he is at times florid). He has a painter’s eye for the surface of life combined with an ear that any dramatist would envy, and, best of all, he has an exceptionally acute grasp of psychology, particularly the knotty emotional-dynamics that play out in contemporary family life.

Even Updike’s failures, say the bizarre middle section of Rabbit Redux where the ordinary-Joe American hero shacks up with a runaway hippy and a black radical, testifies to a strength, his literary daring: rather than staying safe in the suburbs (a locale that he knows better than any writer alive) he’s constantly taking risks by tackling characters and environments far outside his comfort range.

Aside from his primary achievements as a novelist and short story writer, he has merit as a poet (unfashionably formalist and always readable), art critic (where his eye-opening eloquence puts the professionals to shame), memoirist, and literary critic (more than a million words of book reviews for The New Yorker). Except for poetry, he takes these tasks less seriously than his fiction. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,” Updike wrote in the introduction to one of his brick-thick essay collections. Yet even in these secondary efforts, the bastard is a master: I can’t think of anyone who has written as sensitively as Updike has on Kierkegaard, Borges, Nabokov and Phillip Roth. Reading his essays I’ve often wanted to beg him to just stop, to stop it, stop showing off, stop putting us all to shame.

In the latest issue of Harper’s, Wyatt Mason has a long, appreciative overview of Updike as a critic. Mason, the hardest-working young book reviewer around, as always goes above and beyond the call of duty in writing his essay. Purportedly, Mason is reviewing Updike’s latest omnibus collection Due Consideration, but actually the essay covers much of the writer’s earlier career and serves as a quiet manifesto on how to read. (Mason has something like Updike’s work ethic and typically seems to read all a writer’s work, including uncollected fugative squibs, before making the first critical comment). From the looks of the essay, Mason gone and re-read all of Updike’s critical writing and also trekked out to a small used bookstore in Massachusetts where Updike unloaded copies of the books he’s reviewed. Examining these discarded galleys, Mason notes how Updike blackens each book he reads with microscopically-detailed marginalia: the true sign of a intensive, focused, untiring reader.

Mason’s essay is available in full on Harper’s webpage, which also includes a 10-part slideshow of Updike’s marginalia. Find out what the great man really thinks of Tom Wolfe and Alice Munro. Here’s a sample from Mason’s essay:

Thus, you can sit on a couch in the store and open (until it sells, of course) Updike’s copy of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full. A penciled “ugh” greets the reader in the margin of page 12 adjoining the line “Inman was shaking his head so hard his jowls were lagging behind his chin and flopping around.” On the same page, the pencil pinpoints the phrase “an extraordinary pounding,” and then notes, supra, “clichés-a semi cliché in every sentence.” Yet that same reader’s pencil, so peeved so soon, does not fail to fit a “good” onto page 531 beside a description (“He surveyed the tiny red eyes and all the mangy faces looking at him”); or, on page 552, to tag a sartorial catalogue of some length with a “beautiful.” And in Updike’s galley of Gain, by Richard Powers, one notes a ballpoint-penned “awful” pinned to the phrase: “For over a century, Clare laid countless clutches of eggs whose gold only the niggling would stoop to assay”; whereas, nearby, a passage of reportage earns an approving “what a trick!,” and an epigram soon thereafter-“Funerals are for the living, to punish them for all that they’ve failed to do for the dead”-nets a tidy “ha.” A peppering of “ha”s, in fact, in pencil and various tints of pen, season the once-bland margins of many of Updike’s uncorrected proofs; Norman Rush’s Mortals, say, in which its 700-plus pages are stung with spidery tattoos-“graceless sentence,” “good,” “run on,” “good,” “a talky style,” “‘angel-tits,’ cloying,” “‘worse for war’-pun!,” “do we need this?,” “dithering,” “is this too blunt or excellent?”-not to say corrections, even to the novel’s final page, where a forgotten “in” has been planted with a caret.

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