Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Encounter, in silence

Reading is an encounter, in silence, of two minds - John Updike

John Updike died yesterday. He was one of the more prolific authors in the contemporary literary world, having written nearly 60 books in his lifetime.

For the last few years, Updike's name has been at the center of simmering discontent about the Nobel committee and its long-standing disfavor of American literature. This discontent turned into outright war last year when the secretary of the Nobel prize jury for literature, Horace Engdahl slammed all American literature as "too insular". Understandably, that didn't go down very well on this side of the pond, with claims being made, like this one in Slate, that "the Swedes have no clue about American literature". As the controversy raged, two names kept coming up at the top of American claims for a literature Nobel after a 15 year drought - Philip Roth and John Updike. Roth continues to carry the flag.

Updike was not universally liked. While some admired how prolific he was, others wondered whether he was indeed "too prolific". David Foster Wallace asked the now infamous question "Has the SOB ever had one unpublished thought?". He was also exocriated by some for his narcissism and an unnatural fascination with death and sex - "just a penis with a thesaurus". (I wonder how these critics feel about Roth, if these disqualify an author). Wallace captured many of the most prominent criticisms in his article in the Observer from a while back.

Such was the reputation of Updike. He was not the kind of author you would be indifferent to. It was taken as self-evident that if any American author was to be considered for the highest honor, he would be one of the top two people you think about. And he wrote enough to give the Nobel committee something to consider every year - and then some! Which is what makes this a most shame-faced confession - I haven't read any of his books. Always meant to, but I let some of the criticisms get to me. And I am ashamed of it. So I make myself a promise today - I will read some of his works before this year is out. Maybe one of the earlier ones - Rabbit, Run or Witches of Eastwick.

Rest in peace, John Updike.

1 comment:

  1. Love the film version of Witches of Eastwick! I should read the book although I will have Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfieffer, and Susan Sarandon in my head the whole time!