Category Archives: Updike

the least interesting conversation in the world continues

Much as I hate to dredge up Updike and his crusty rejoinder to Kevin Kelly’s “Scan this Book” at last month’s Book Expo, The New York Times has refused to let it die, re-printing his speech in the Sunday Book Review under the headline, “The End of Authorship.” We should all thank the Times for perpetuating this most uninteresting war of words about the publishing future. Here, once again, is Updike:

Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.

I was reading Christine Boese’s response to this (always an exhilarating antidote to the usual muck), where she wonders about Updike’s use of history:

The part of this that is the most peculiar to me is the invoking of the Renaissance. I’d characterize that period as a time of explosive artistic and intellectual growth unleashed largely by social unrest due to structural and technological changes.
….swung the tipping point against the entrenched power arteries of the Church and Aristocracy, toward the rising merchant class and new ways of thinking, learning, and making, the end result was that the “fruit basket upset” of turning the known world’s power structures upside down opened the way to new kinds of art and literature and science.
So I believe we are (or were) in a similar entrenched period like that now. Except that there is a similar revolution underway. It unsettles many people. Many are brittle and want to fight it. I’m no determinist. I don’t see it as an inevitability. It looks to me more like a shift in the prevailing winds. The wind does not deterministically affect all who are buffeted the same way. Some resist, some bend, some spread their wings and fly off to wherever the wind will take them, for good or ill.
Normally, I’d hope the leading edge of our best artists and writers would understand such a shift, would be excited to be present at the birth of a new Renaissance. So it puzzles me that John Updike is sounding so much like those entrenched powers of the First and Second Estate who faced the Enlightenment and wondered why anyone would want a mass-printed book when clearly monk-copied manuscripts from the scriptoria are so much better?!

I say it again, it’s a shame that Kelly, the uncritical commercialist, and Updike, the nostaligic elitist, have been the ones framing the public debate. For most of us, Google is neither the eclipse nor dawn of authorship, but just a single feature of a shifting landscape. Search is merely a tool, a means: the books themselves are the end. Yet, neither Google Book Search, which is simply an apparatus for extracting new profits off of the transmission and search of books, nor the present-day publishing industry, dominated as it is by mega-conglomerates with their penchant for blockbusters (our culture haunted by vast legions of the out-of-print), serves those ends very well. And yet these are the competing futures of the book: lonely forts and sparkling clouds. Or so we’re told.

updike’s tattoo

John_updike.jpg 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.