JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art that are direct appeals to the her of the above quotation, not for salvation as such, but for the possibly higher experience of being “transparent,” that is, an artist. There has been from the first, in his fiction, an omniscience that works against the serious development of tragic experiences; what might be tragedy can be reexamined, reassessed, and dramatized as finally comic, with overtones of despair. Contending for one’s soul with Nature is, of course, the Calvinist God Whose judgments may be harsh but do not justify the term tragic.
more from Oates’ 1975 essay here.