What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Friday, September 11, 2015

In Praise of John Updike's Criticism (Contra James Wood)

John Updike (Illustration by Tom Bachtell)
James Wood, in his recent interview with Isaac Chotiner (Slate, August 18, 2015), makes explicit what I’ve always suspected – his distaste for John Updike’s criticism. Chotiner says to him, “And yet, I never liked, say, John Updike’s criticism, just because I felt like he was always just sort of going through the motions of telling me what the book was about.” Wood replies,

I know, I never liked it either. The redescription in Updike’s criticism is obviously of a high order, and [of] a certain kind of generosity, too—that’s to say, he was a very patient and hospitable quoter of other people’s texts. But I always felt that there was a certain kind of ungenerousness in Updike’s work, too. The maddening equilibrium of his critical voice—never getting too upset or too excited—enacted, I always felt, a kind of strategy of containment, whereby everything could be diplomatically sorted through, and somehow equalized and neutralized, and put onto the same shelf—and always one rung below Updike himself. That’s perhaps unfair. But I think his fiction worked in the same way, too, despite the passionate attention of his prose: It existed to clothe the world in superb words, to contain it, somehow.

Well, there’s no accounting for taste. The great literary critic of my life is Updike. His reviews are like no others; they show how criticism can be a breathtaking art in itself.  

As an offset against Wood’s sour remarks, I want to quote a passage from Orhan Pamuk’s "Updike at Rest" (New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 17, 2014), a review of Adam Begley’s Updike:

In 1985, on my first visit to America, I found a copy of Updike’s recently published “Hugging the Shore” in a secondhand-book shop. In this collection of book reviews (written in large part for The New Yorker), I discovered an Updike who had been invisible from Istanbul: Updike the essayist. For years thereafter, I bought The New Yorker just in case it might contain one of his reviews. As his admirer Julian Barnes once wrote, it may be difficult to find anyone who has read all of Updike’s books. But I may well have read all of his essays, as collected in “Picked-Up Pieces,” “Hugging the Shore,” “Odd Jobs,” “More Matter,” “Due Considerations” and the posthumously published “Higher Gossip.” These book reviews and, later, his art reviews collected in “Just Looking,” “Still Looking” and the posthumously published “Always Looking,” have given me as much pleasure as his novels, and in fact reading Updike’s invariably sensitive, fair and entertaining essays has changed the way I read his fiction, armed with the knowledge that those novels and stories have been written by perhaps one of the world’s most distinguished men of letters.

These words make me smile; I totally identify with them. Updike’s critical writings have been a tremendous source of pleasure in my life, too. From the wonderful Updike collections that Pamuk mentions, here are a dozen of my favorite lines:

In the interminable rain of his prose, I felt goodness. [“Remembrance of Things Past Remembered,” in Picked-Up Pieces]

He slices up ordinary experience into paper-thin transparencies and feeds it back in poetic printout. [“Layers of Ambiguity,” in Hugging the Shore]

Mind permeates Bellow’s renderings; permeability is the essence of his fluid, nervous, colorful mimetic art. [“Draping Radiance with a Worn Veil,” in Hugging the Shore]

And what is a cop kebap? The prose tells us, and something of present-day, real-life Istanbul springs into being. [“Dutchmen and Turks,” in Odd Jobs]

Beauty lives, surely, in a harmonious excitement of particulars. [“Logic Is Beautiful,” in Still Looking]

The will to describe, the willingness to be transported by details of the humble actual, is a novelist’s requisite [“Worlds and Worlds,” in Hugging the Shore]

His lavish, rippling notations of persons, furniture, habiliments, and vistas awaken us to what is truly there. [“Toppling Towers Seen by a Whirling Soul,” in Hugging the Shore]

Love of language might be an answer – language as a semi-opaque medium whose colors and connotations can be worked into a supernatural, supermimetic bliss. [“The Doctor’s Son,” in Hugging the Shore]

Her details – which include the lyrics of the songs her characters overhear on the radio and the recipes of the rather junky food they eat – calmly accrue; her dialogue trails down the pages with an uncanny fidelity to the low-level heartbreaks behind the banal; her resolutely unmetaphorical style builds around us a maze of familiar truths that nevertheless has something airy, eerie, and in the end lovely about it. [“Stalled Starters,” in Hugging The Shore]

That nasal squeak like fingernails on silk shows an avid realism. [“Fairy Tales and Paradigms, in Due Considerations]

They live, in short, and like all living feed on air, on the invisible; the spaces between the words are warm, and the strangeness is mysteriously exact, the strangeness of the vital. [“An Introduction to Three Novels by Henry Green,” in Hugging the Shore]

He lived for art, its appreciation as well as its creation. [“Imperishable Maxwell,” in Higher Gossip]

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