I was startled but not surprised to read about John Updike’s denigration of the future of ebooks at BookExpo. Had he tattooed it on his forehead he couldn’t have made clearer his idealization of 19th-century structures and modes of thinking. His talk represented the final glorification of the author/artist/creator as a higher being ingrained with heroic capabilities unapproachable by mere mortals. For Updike and all those unable to cross into the new Canaan of electronicity, the apotheosis of the artist fits into the tradition of history as a history of heroes. There are but a few gods of literature as is only natural, I expected him to say, and if you have art made by whole masses of people, many of them unidentifiable, we’ll have regressed to the period of Notre Dame cathedral or the Pyramids, in which no individuals were glorified for their contributions to art or to the era when writing went unsigned or when the writer assumed the mantle of some greater person, to glorify them and spread their thinking.*
This hero worship that Updike has wallowed in for the last 40 years has addled his brain. Reading some of his remarks reminded me of a screed published in the Saturday Review of Literature back in the 1970’s, if memory serves, by Louis Untermeyer, decrying the abominably inadequate generation of poets who couldn’t use rhyme or rhythm to make their way out of a paperbag. The rant was entertaining and almost credible in its denunciations — except for Untermeyer’s having chosen one of the great poems of the 20th century — Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” — as his example of the witless drivel this shiftless new generation was producing. Untermeyer and Updike belong to the same class of critic as the French academicians who dismissed the Impressionists or the Fauves (“wild beasts”), blind to the future and in love with their own tinny emulation of the greater artists who preceded them. (Who will put Updike in the same list as Tolstoy or Faulkner or Fielding or Isak Dinesen? They made new forms, indelibly, while the best that can be said of Updike is that he stood alone as a prolific writer of magazine pieces.)
It’s been said** that new scientific theories don’t win over their opponents so much as they are accepted by the new generation and the old generation dies off. The same holds true in art, of course. The precocious writers of the coming generation will cut their teeth on blogs and networked books and media that will require visual acuity and improvisational methods that make Updike’s juvenilia*** feel as antiquated as William Dean Howells or James Fenimore Cooper. A living fossil. What a fall from the pantheon he occupies in his imagination.
* I’m thinking specifically of the authors of Revelations and several of the Gnostic gospels.
** Apparently most authoritatively in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Updike’s remarks provide striking evidence of Kuhn’s theory of incommensurability of paradigms — if you are fully caught up in the old paradigm you have no way of assessing the new, lacking common values, language and experience with its proponents.
*** Updike has published, what, 36 books of fiction? We’ll be generous and include the first quarter in this categorization.