Reviews — From the June 2014 issue
Discussed in this essay:
Updike, by Adam Begley. Harper. 576 pages. $29.99.
The least receptive audience for Adam Begley’s hefty, thorough biography of John Updike may well be other writers. There are certain sentimental tropes about the writing life that writers tend to treasure in order to keep the faith necessary to stay on a career path so generous with discouragements and so parsimonious with rewards: for instance, the notion that rejection builds character. Or that there is some sort of karmic relationship between brutal obscurity and eventual, even posthumous fame — that the latter can be attained only by passing through the moral crucible of the former. What struggling young writer — or bitterly persistent middle-aged writer, for that matter — wouldn’t rather read about the example set by Herman Melville or Emily Dickinson or even John Kennedy Toole than about someone whose career consisted of nothing but unbroken critical and popular success?
As a boy of twelve, living in rural Pennsylvania, John Updike announced that his life’s ambition was to be a contributor to The New Yorker, and he had closed that deal two months after graduating from college. At Harvard he was denied admission into Archibald MacLeish’s legendary creative-writing seminar, and he died some fifty-six years later without having received the Nobel Prize; but between those two indignities it is fair to say that no conceivable token of the world’s esteem was withheld from him. He had published fourteen books by the time he was thirty-four years old. Two years before that, he became one of the youngest writers ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. And so on.
Updike might have thrown the rest of us a bone by experiencing, say, the occasional bout of writer’s block, but no; his great difficulty was that he wrote so much — all of it published — that he could barely keep up with himself. (He once unnervingly admitted, vis-à-vis his side gig as a book reviewer, that he wrote faster than he read.) In the end he produced more than seventy books. One of Begley’s challenges — never mind the challenge of finding some element of suspense in his subject’s “monotonously triumphant career” — is how to keep us interested in the daily life of a man whose existence was relatively dull for the simple, admirable reason that he wrote all the damn time.
Begley puts the smoothness of Updike’s journey in literary context:
Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday (the list includes Upton Sinclair, Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, Norman Mailer, Flannery O’Connor, William Styron, Gore Vidal, Harold Brodkey, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon), none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss. . . . He wasn’t despairing or thwarted or resentful; he wasn’t alienated or conflicted or drunk; he quarreled with no one. In short, he cultivated none of the professional deformations that habitually plague American writers. Even his neuroses were tame.
A biography, unlike virtually every other sort of book, doesn’t always need to justify its own existence. Though the years of Updike’s life were often featureless, in the end he gets a fat biography because he was Great — simple as that. Apart from suffering, Updike did pretty much everything it is popularly thought great writers do. He wrote wryly but affirmatively about sex and God and America; he had a wise, avuncular public face; and every book he wrote was by definition a part of the national cultural conversation. Begley’s stately life of Updike is the logical outcome of our agreement about the institution of Updike’s greatness; ironically, in its reverential thoroughness it contains everything you’d need to arm yourself for that institution’s overthrow.
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