Among the Reviewers, by Wyatt Mason

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John Updike and the book-review bugaboo

Lately, manifestos on the matter of book reviewing seem to be cropping up all over. “The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers,” wrote Steve Wasserman in the Columbia Journalism Review this fall, just months after Cynthia Ozick, lamenting in these pages the decline in popular conversation about books, declared, “What is not happening is literary criticism.” Nor is such exasperation confined to our more seasoned commentators. In the new literary journal n+1, dissatisfaction found a specific target, The New Republic: “Its method was wholly negative… indiscriminately so.” And a 2003 essay on reviewing and its discontents in McSweeney’s offshoot The Believer found editor Heidi Julavits observing that “a lot of books are reviewed by people who don’t read books unless they’re reviewing them.”

Differing somewhat in their ultimate points—some saying that too much criticism is mean-spirited and rude; others offering that it’s softheaded or too content to mollycoddle—all took pains to acknowledge earlier manifestos, thereby suggesting the problem wasn’t new. Thus Wasserman quoted similar assessments of reviewery by Jay Parini in 1999 (“ill-considered opinion, ludicrously off-the-mark praise, and blame”), Edmund Wilson in 1963 (“The disappearance of the Times Sunday book section at the time of the printers’ strike only made us realize it had never existed”), and Elizabeth Hardwick in 1959 (“Sweet, bland commendations fall everywhere upon the scene; a universal, if somewhat lobotomized, accommodation reigns”). Julavits cited Orwell in 1936 and Wilson in 1944. n+1 name-dropped Wilson, too. Apparently, one can’t not. Fair enough. Here, then, is an even earlier excoriation, vintage 1928, from Wilson’s “The Critic Who Does Not Exist”: “When one considers the number of reviews, the immense amount of literary journalism that is now being published in New York, one asks oneself how it is possible for our reviewing to remain so puerile.”

Yes, very clearly: one asks. What is curious, though, about this run of failing grades sent to generations of critics is how few serious suggestions are made for remediation; these critics of criticism are stern teachers with high standards, but it would seem they have little practicable curriculum to impart. Julavits tells us, for instance, that “there exist many able reader-critics to write about [books], people whose main qualification is that they seriously care about books”—“caring” the policy that would ensure “both fairness and rigor when assessing the success or failure of an author’s project.” Or, as n+1’s editors maintain, “The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them.”

Let us concede them their points, such as they are, while not failing to note that the more functional and specific traits that any of these advocates would wish a work of criticism to exhibit are left unqualified. What criticism might practically entail—what tactics, what techniques, what fine tools—is left unelaborated except in the most amorphous (to care, to think) terms. And so, when Zadie Smith tells us, in her own recent 8,000-word manifesto on these matters, “What I am imagining is, I hope, a far more thorough reader,” what is one left to suppose but that the true critic, like a unicorn or a yeti, must reside in the imagination?

If it were your wish, however, to try to learn what critical care and thought demand—if you were seeking to cultivate your own thoroughness as a reader, whether you be a silent critic or a noisy one already delivering opinions in print—I submit that you could do far worse than to begin with a field trip to a town in Massachusetts called Manchester-by-the-Sea. If the name is charming, I should say the town is not so very; rather, it is the sort of place to which one’s grandparents might hope to retire comfortably if they had the means. There is, however, an enlivening feature of the town that could incline you to a longer stay: a shop with the punny name Manchester by the Book. That it is an attractive used-book shop of the kind we see less and less makes it a nice place to pass an hour. That it has in a glass case, among assorted pricey rarities, scores of John Updike’s review copies might be cause to loiter.

In the forty-nine years since Updike’s first collection of poetry, The Carpentered Hen, appeared in 1958, amid the fifty-nine books that have followed—six subsequent poetry collections, five children’s books, one memoir, a play, fifteen collections of stories, and twenty-two novels—there also have been eight collections of essays. Although it is the novels and stories that have kept Updike a household name for fifty years, in undertaking what he calls his “daily exertions” Updike has also been generating essays that cover a hodgepodge of topics: art, golf, health, fashion, media, America, and others still. The essays alone run to nearly five thousand pages. Of these volumes, the six largest have been devoted mostly to a single subject—books—three hundred signed reviews of which have appeared in The New Yorker. (Updike also wrote dozens of unsigned reviews for that magazine’s “Briefly Noted” section, including an anonymous review of Nicholson Baker’s U & I—a memoir of its author’s infatuation with the book’s eventual reviewer.) All told, Updike has published more than a million words on books.

The entry points for those exertions have been the countless paperback promotional copies sent out for his consideration. Updike has sought various strategies for dealing with this bounty. He has, it is said around Manchester-by-the-Sea, given review copies away to his church, for the book sale. Others have been handed off to the wives of the men with whom he golfs. But those copies on deposit at Manchester by the Book were, as he told the Boston Globe, “just collecting dust and mouse droppings” in his cellar and his barn before he sold them for “a fair price.”

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.

To peruse copies of books that Updike read with the intention of reviewing—including Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; Alice Munro’s Selected Stories; Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin; Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex; and many others—is to meet a reader who, in a most inarguable way, is a picture of thoroughness. The margins run with comments, even in appendices, even by footnotes. “I read slower than I write,” Updike wrote, rather amazingly, in 1975, suggesting that these annotative efforts represent a substantial investment of time. If criticism is, as Terry Eagleton has said, a way of “looking at meaning not as an object but as a practice,” then one can see in Updike’s review copies the humble, rudimentary motions of that practice. As often as not, his marginalia may be seen doing one of the most immediate jobs of criticism, which is to distinguish, however arbitrarily, good things from bad. And yet, in the main, Updike may be spied undertaking a more considered task: that of interrogation. The form of punctuation that predominates in his margins is the question mark. What one is witness to is a patient reader’s private conversation with a book.

A monkey, of course, can make marginal marks; the poor creature reads slower than he types, too. It is what these jottings and stabbings add up to that matters. The pieces of criticism that have poured from Updike are, as he writes in the preface to Due Considerations, his latest collection of essays and his sixtieth book, the “end-products of an adolescent yearning to become a professional writer, or at least to enter in some guise into the mass of printed material that hung above the middle-browed middle class in the middle of the last century like a vast cloud gently raining ink.”

Some readers, however, have grown suspicious of Updike the rainmaker—dismissing out of hand the possibility that quality could obtain in the face of such unlikely quantity. Updike’s productivity, particularly the unevenness of his fictional output as time wears on—Seek My Face no Of the Farm; Villages no Couples; Terrorist no Rabbit, Run—courts doubt over his powers of discrimination. Consider the following sonnet of Updike’s, published in the first issue of The Oxford American and composed on the eve of Valentine’s Day, 1989:

Though most of them aren’t much to write about—
mere squibs and nubs, like half-smoked pale cigars,
the tint and stink recalling Tuesday’s meal,
the texture loose and soon dissolved—this one,
struck off in solitude one afternoon
(that prairie stretch before the late light fails)
with no distinct sensation, sweet or pained,
of special inspiration or release,

was yet a masterpiece: a flawless coil,
unbroken, in the bowl, as if a potter
who worked in this most frail, least grateful clay
had set himself to shape a topaz vase.
O spiral perfection, not seashell nor
stardust, how can I keep you? With this poem.

Milan Kundera defines kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit,” and we might be inclined to worry over Updike’s wholesale acceptance of same. Reading this poem, “The Beautiful Bowel Movement,” one wants very much to believe that with each artistic choice—the sudden parenthetical shift into the incongruously pastoral “prairie stretch”; the rhyming of “release” with “masterpiece”; the pun in “as if a potter”; the closing couplet’s “O” through which the poem’s final feet run—Updike himself released a roar of compositional laughter. One is not, however, so sure. Updike’s unusual talent for what he termed the “lyric glimpse” can draw the lighthouse beam of his attention too readily to the illumination of meaningless detail, to the making of one too many attempts, as he said in 1965, “to freeze the flux of life into the icy permanence of print.” When David Remnick dismisses, fairly, those who dismiss Updike as “a preternaturally skillful writer of surfaces,” one shouldn’t ignore the evidence that Updike is unfailingly an artist of the visible, an adherent to William Carlos Williams’s injunction, “no ideas but in things.” That Updike seems hard-pressed to discriminate, at times, between the telling thing and the telling of everything suggests a strength that becomes a weakness.

Nevertheless, it is that very sensitivity to surface that makes Updike such a sensitive critic. If there is seemingly no limit to the number of goosebumps that Updike can catalogue in the areolar rim that rings a raspberryate nipple, he imposes far more stringent limits when weighing the fruits of the imagination of another artist. Updike has called Christianity “my curious hobby,” and it seems that its teachings inform the do-unto-others prescription that guides his hand as a reviewer. In Picked-up Pieces (1975), Updike’s second collection of essays, he lists his rules for reviewing:

  1. Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending….
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

All better literary criticism tends to abide by these rules as a matter of course. Dale Peck was ultimately easy to discredit as a voice of critical discernment not because of the severity of his pronouncements (his dismissals of Nabokov, Joyce, Faulkner, et al.) or even his showboating rudeness; rather, he courted his own dismissal through his increasing disinterest in crafting arguments that would plausibly substantiate, through textual evidence, his condemnations. Critical authority can only be earned, and Updike’s rules represent the very minimum, practical, practicable means by which one can go about building authority: with direct and responsible recourse to the books themselves.

“Easier said than done,” Updike wrote of actually adhering to his own rules. Indeed, his earliest attempts at reviewing did not show especial promise. Like many young novelists who turn to the practice as a means of keeping themselves afloat while building a reputation, Updike initially leaned too heavily on a tendency as necessary to fiction as it is nettlesome in criticism—an overweening subjectivity. Here are how two of his early reviews from 1960 begin:

On a British-owned island in the West Indies recently, I read through an anthology of “schoolboy” stories—a genre special to the English, who take their schoolboys with a singularly high seriousness.

When I had finished reading this big book, I closed it, and looked at the back, and my tired eyes, without my willing it, went out of focus, placing, to the right of Aiken’s face and slightly lower, a dimmer duplicate.

To read a review that begins in the first person singular is like watching someone propose a toast to himself at a party thrown for another man. Here, though, what grates isn’t even so much the presence of the reviewer’s “I” as the prosaic details relating to the atmosphere in which he read the books. Updike still does, now and again, begin a review in the first person, but he does not include details as banal and self-infatuated as those above. What seems clearest in these fledgling efforts is that Updike had yet to distinguish between the novelistic practice and the critical one: he was willing to include details (the Indies; the closing of the book) that said too much about Updike and not enough about the book under review.

Quickly, though, Updike distanced himself from this kind of easy solipsism. Scruple was substituted, and thoroughness maintained. His careful reading would serve the making of clear aesthetic points. From a review of_ Franny and Zooey_, in 1961, in The New York Times Book Review:

The more Salinger writes about them, the more the seven Glass children melt indistinguishably together in an impossible radiance of personal beauty and intelligence. Franny is described thus: “Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive. Her eyes were very nearly the same quite astonishing shade of blue as Zooey’s, but were set farther apart, as a sister’s eyes no doubt should be….” Of Zooey, we are assured he has a “somewhat preposterous ability to quote, instantaneously and, usually, verbatim, almost anything he had ever read, or even listened to, with genuine interest.” The purpose of such sentences is surely not to particularize imaginary people but to instill in the reader a mood of blind worship, tinged by an envy that the author encourages with a patent leer of indulgence.

Without coyness, Updike renders a stern judgment based on telling quotation. He builds toward his findings in plain sight, earning him an authority that is based on his presentation of a plausible case. Rather than caring about books per se, which Heidi Julavits described as the central requirement for a book reviewer, Updike may be seen here caring about doing his job. The job in this case demanded that he point out flaws in the work of a fellow fiction writer and corroborate those points with evidence.

Although some readers are uneasy, a priori, with negativity, Salinger’s reputation has weathered Updike’s high-profile critique for a very simple reason: a text is not exhausted by a work of criticism, only informed by it. We leave Updike’s review thinking not about negativity, nor about Updike, but thinking, as good criticism makes us, about a writer’s choices. That we ultimately do or do not agree with Updike’s assessment is of no importance. That the assessment is clear and well-founded allows us to engage a point of view with which we can also, if we are so disposed, argue privately.

“What can one say, critically, about a critic without seeming hypercritical?” asked Updike in his assessment of Cyril Connolly. Of Updike, one can say that he is no Cyril Connolly. He rarely goes curmudgeon. Most books find him in an equanimous mood tending to curiosity: How is this made? Why does it work? Why did it fall apart? There are, however, instances in which his poise is most regularly tested. In recent reviews of American fiction, one senses a certain uneasiness. Updike says as much in his preface to Due Considerations: “As I passed the sixty-two book reviews in this collection under my eyes again, I wondered if their customary geniality… didn’t somewhat sour when faced with a novel by a fellow-countryman.” Indeed, in his reviews thereof—of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (“a reader undertaking a novel grants the writer a generous initial draft of suspended disbelief. DeLillo spends this advance payment as recklessly as his hero overinvests in loans against the yen”), Norman Rush’s Mortals (“It is annoying, one could say, that a novel demonstrating so acute, well stocked, and witty a sensibility is such a trial to read… the story feels impeded by a joyless exactitude”), Denis Johnson’s The Name of the World (“Denis Johnson’s radioactive wine holds up best in small bottles, before the decay of rhetoric sets in”)—Updike does take issue with the means by which these novelists establish a believable world through prose.

Whether writers or not, readers will often prove more responsive to certain effects than to others, those that in some way speak to them directly. (“What else have you underlined?” asks one character looking at the marginalia in the book of another in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound. “What everybody underlines,” she says. “Everything that says ‘me.’”) Not surprisingly, Updike isn’t immune to appreciating writing that mirrors his own aesthetic (in his marginalia to a book about W. H. Auden, adjoining the words, “‘without body, parts or passions,’” Updike, inveterate alliteratophile, pencils, “lovely phrase”). The question, though, in criticism, is whether local responses are fitted into a case for or against a book that offers more than subjective aesthetic appreciation—more than what Terry Eagleton terms a “waffling belletrism, a sort of linguistic equivalent to wine tasting.” Despite Updike’s suspicion that he is too hard on his American confreres, he is far more supportive of difference than he is intolerant. Even his review of Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, famous for the assertion that the book was “not literature,” is, in the main, a record of that novel’s capacity to entertain and stimulate, albeit with the argumentative point that Wolfe does not possess the full complement of writerly gifts that would make him the great artist he has trumpeted himself as—a fair critical parry to the novelist’s thrusting manifestos of the past, such as “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” which ran in Harper’s. The arguments Updike makes against particular works of fiction grant a reader his own mind: one feels encouraged to read the books and form independent opinions.

Except, perhaps, when one encounters Updike’s reviews of non-fiction. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea,” wrote Updike in an earlier collection. Whereas fiction, in Updike’s analogy, charts a course for deep, open, and often uncharted (and to Updike the novelist, exciting) waters, criticism hugs the shore of a discovered country. When that country is fictional, the fiction writer in him generally delights in a writer’s willingness to explore a dangerous unknown. But Updike seems to hold non-fiction narratives—cultural histories in particular—to a stricter critical standard: when the country explored is factual, Updike shows little forbearance for cartographers who, in his view, can’t tell north from south. In Due Considerations, Jed Perl’s New Art City, a history of art in Manhattan during the last mid-century, and David Allyn’s Make Love, Not War, a history of the sexual revolution, meet with unsympathetic appraisals. Of Allyn: “Though one must admire the wealth of detail and documented anecdote that fuels his steamy narrative, there is something mechanical about his take on this, after all, intimate sea-change.” Of Perl: His “long trek… is a wearying one.” Updike grants these men their grasp of the facts but takes more time, in Perl’s case particularly, to hammer away at the infelicities of their styles: “While one would not mistake Perl’s hip, allusion-rich prose for hot air, it does, in its schematizing ease and eager phrasemaking, attain a warm-air status.”

Naturally, a critic of non-fiction should take the writer’s style as seriously as he would that of a fiction writer. And yet, what is curious in Updike’s reviews of non-fiction is his reflex to use style as a stick that risks providing too short a measure of a book’s virtues. Three instances of a stylistic tic (“David Allyn likes the image of running out of steam enough to use it at least three times”) seem evidence enough, such that when Updike allows himself a dozen examples of Perl’s tendency to coin compound adjectives, one wonders to what end. For to level at an art critic the kind of scrutiny that might prove he is no Saul Bellow may not be the best use of Updike’s column inches, or the fairest measure of Perl’s worth.

This emphasis on style allows a general statement that applies to Updike’s writing on both non-fiction and fiction: He is not typically drawn, in his reviews, to the exploration of bigger questions. “These are neither casual aesthetic riffs nor a reviewer’s mere ‘personal’ opinion: they are philosophies,” wrote Cynthia Ozick, approvingly, in these pages about the literary criticism of James Wood. By contrast, one would rarely mistake Updike’s criticism for philosophy. This is not necessarily a weakness; criticism, to adapt a phrase of Zadie Smith’s, is a broad church, admitting many kinds of zeal. It is only to say that the occasional myopia of Updike’s non-fiction reviews seems an outgrowth of his strength as a close reader of fiction—a sensitivity to style that, in the case of a non-fiction writer whose first order of business is subject matter rather than expression, can derail an entirely fair assessment of the book’s value.

Nor is Updike a critic from whom, when reading his reviews, one will learn much about approaches to writing on writing. Where in the work of Denis Donoghue, Terry Eagleton, and Frank Kermode there is an engagement with the questions—theoretical, political—inherent in criticism and the biases a critic brings to bear on a text, Updike is unengaged by such engagements. (In three reviews of the work of Roland Barthes, Updike showed greatest enthusiasm for the skinny gathering of occasional writings, New Critical Essays—a charming book but perhaps the least representative of the French writer’s enduring worth.) Updike is what those in academe would, with no small disdain, call an old-fashioned appreciative critic, an aestheticist, a subjectivist. Shorn of the withering tone, this is a very fair assessment of Updike the critic, one that is pejorative only if we disallow that this kind of criticism holds an interest for the intelligent reader. Updike’s best work is informed less by fiat and declaration than by demonstration. Rather than worrying out loud over the state of literary criticism, he shows a commitment to it through practice.

The bulk of Updike’s diligent work through the decades also allows for the extraction of a useful truth: such a quantity of quality is unusual—perhaps especially in book reviewing. To write book reviews well, as Updike’s rarity makes clear, is uncommon. That our book reviews remain, in Wilson’s 1928 evaluation, “so puerile” is because reading a book well, not to say writing about it well, requires time, diligence, intelligence. But it also demands something perhaps rarer still, at which few writers necessarily excel—a quality that, in fundamental ways, seems at odds with the creative endeavor: an abiding humility. As Frank Kermode has said of the critic’s role, “we shouldn’t get above ourselves.” After all, the critic’s job, as Kermode knows, is “to serve literature.” Criticism is a private service made public, and how many people go into writing with the hope of becoming servants of the public good? It is as Updike wrote, in 1962, of James Agee’s 250,000 words of criticism contributed—anonymously—to Time and Fortune: “Surely a culture is enhanced, rather than disgraced, when men of talent and passion undertake anonymous and secondary tasks. Excellence in the great things is built upon excellence in the small.” That is as close as Updike has ever gotten to a manifesto on the state of book reviewing, and that, to my mind, is just close enough.

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