defending John Updike

UpdikeRobert Wilson at The American Scholar:

Begley records the harsh things writers like James Wood and David Foster Wallace said about Updike late in his career—the former writing, “Updike is not, I think, a great writer” and the latter accusing Updike in 1997 of being, along with Roth and Norman Mailer, in his “senescence.” As for himself, Begley says, “Predicting his eventual place in the pantheon of American literature is an amusing pastime, but no more useful than playing pin-the-tail with the genius label.” Still, I wish he had said more about the influence of Updike’s own criticism when he was not writing about novelists he saw as potential rivals. Updike reintroduced an American audience to the 20th-century British novelist Henry Green (Party Going; Loving) and wrote thoughtful and generous reviews of other novelists from safely distant shores, ranging from John McGahern and William Trevor in Ireland to Christina Stead in Australia, to Wole Soyinka and a raft of other African writers. Any book by Vladimir Nabokov, whom Updike admired and at times emulated, was sure to get his notice. No other American writer of Updike’s stature contributed so much to the literary culture of our time.

Even if fixing Updike’s place in the firmament is only an amusing and useless pastime, it is hard to resist. I suspect that readers down the years will return to Updike as we do to Balzac, not for the single masterpiece, perhaps, but for the cumulative power of his close attention to his world (“he was enthralled by the detail of his own experience,” as Begley gracefully puts it).

more here.