Blogging, Books, and the Future of Prose

  

Sarah Boxer’s new book. 

Last fall while visiting Boston, I met up with my friend Sarah Boxer, an excellent cultural journalist and cartoonist. Over an appropriately American lunch of hamburgers and coke we chatted a bit about her upcoming book Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web, an anthology of strong blog writing. The problem with such a book, I thought, was the question of whether blog postings could work on the printed page. Sarah was very conscious of this difficulty and seemed to have worked hard to winnow her selection down to the best postings out there without doing violence to the free-for-all spirit of the web.

I’m looking foward to seeing Sarah’s book (which is now out) but our talk got me thinking about how blogging might be changing the nature of prose.

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John Updike on Comics: a dream anthology

John Updike, as seen by David Levine in 1978.

Years ago while doing some research at Boston University on the papers of the cartoonist Harold Gray, the creator of the Little Orphan Annie, I came across a fan letter that was unusually eloquent. When I looked at the name of the bottom right hand corner of the type-written page it all became clear: it was a missive sent in 1948 by John Updike, then an aspiring cartoonist, when he was 15 years old.  As I got to know Updike’s writing I started to realize that the letter was a simply one thread in a large and comfy biographical quilt. Like almost all American kids of his generation, Updike consumed comics even before he could read, so they were intertwined with his earliest experiences of art. Cartooning appealed to him as a potential vocation and he composed his first fledgling fan letters around 1942, when he was ten. After Updike settled on a literary career, he often returned to comics as a way of giving visual and mnemonic potency to his prose. His most recent writing on cartooning was his review earlier this year in The New Yorker of a much-disputed Charles Schulz biography. (For more on Updike and comics, see the articles I’ve written for the Boston Globe and the Guardian).  

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Updike and the bobos

As a writer, John Updike is a spendthrift. He’s free and easy with his words because they come so easily to him. Like a trust-fund kid he can afford to be magnanimous and spread the wealth. Most of us, when we come up with a clever metaphor or a happy phrase, like to hold on to it, show it around a bit, recycle and reuse it as much as we can. Our coinages are like rare coins, not to be spent but rather hoarded and exhibited.

Look at what David Brooks did when he came up with the nice alliterative catchphrase “bourgeois bohemians” (soon shortened to “bobos”). Brooks was so pleased with himself when he came up with that one that he turned it into an entire book, Bobos in Paradise.

Has anyone noticed that Brooks’s brainchild had an Updikian ancestor? In a 1964 essay on Nabokov, Updike executed a beautiful little sketch of Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, “with her blatant bourgeois Bohemianism, her cigarettes, her Mexican doodads, her touchingly clumsy sexuality, her utterly savage and believable war with her daughter.” Embedded in a much longer sentence, this encapsulation is thrillingly exact. Not only did Updike come up with “bourgeois Bohemianism” he also had sense enough not to stretch a clever bit of wordplay into a sociological tome.

Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, Jr., RIP

Finding good prose in the blogging world is as difficult as locating a splinter from the true cross or the crate housing the arc of the covenant. So I’m grateful to Scott McLemee, essayist and polymath, for calling attention to Phil Nugent’s wry, culturally informed, and nonchalantly modulated tribute to Evel Knievel. Anyone who has memories of the 1970s will have flashbacks when reading Nugent’s little gem of an obit. A sample:

 I grew up white trash in the 1970s, which means that I am among the select group that might be expected to be able to explain Evel Knievel to the generations not then yet born. I’m not really sure that it can be done. I can say that for those of us who were of a certain age, the Snake River Canyon adventure on September 8, 1974 marked the first time we really grasped the concept of “hype,” just as those a little older or a little younger figured it out with a little help from the Liz Taylor Cleopatra or Frankie Goes to Hollywood….Evel a motorcycle daredevil by trade, announced that he would jump the canyon with a specially built “supersonic Sky Cycle”, a phrase calculated to conjure the picture of some kind of bike in the mind’s eye. In fact, the plan was to strap the man to a rocket, aim it at the other side of the canyon, and hope for the best. Reports indicate that Evel himself had given up hope of surviving the event by the time it came due but preferred certain death to giving back the money and enduring the jeers of the fans. (The kinks never got worked out prior to the actual attempt; after the first few tests failed, Evel decreed that there would be no more test runs because the actual reminders that he was a dead man walking were bumming him out.)

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.