John Updike Speaks

Never have quite known what to make of John Updike.  His famous short story “A & P,” although dated to some present-day tastes, is still a classic coming-of-age (and “coming of moral age”) tale.  One of these days, I’ll get to the bottom of his Rabbit books.  (What a brilliant name for a character “Rabbit Angstrom” is!).  Yet, I still don’t know what Updike’s career adds up to.

Today, however, I have some admiration for some remarks Updike once made about his life and his profession after he left New York, reprinted courtesy of The Writer’s Almanac:

“I did leave without regret the literary demimonde of agents and would-be’s and with-it non-participants; this world seemed unnutritious and interfering. […] In 1957, I was full of a Pennsylvania thing I wanted to say, and Ipswich gave me the space in which to say it, and in which to live modestly, raise my children, and have friends on the basis of what I did in person rather than what I did in print.”

God please save me from being one of “the with-it non-participants.”  You know the type–the fellow who’s always talking about the book he’s going to write but never gets around to writing it.  The thought of being like that terrifies me, and the clock that is my heart is ticking.  (It is, I swear.  I can hear it.)  I need to go back to my desk now.

The other striking thing:  Updike wished to have friends on the basis of what he did in person rather than what he did in print.  That’s an odd thing for a writer to say, except that it’s not.  Every writer I’ve ever known wished passionately to communicate with others through words on the page.  So do I.  Yet every one of us would prefer our deepest communications to be face-to-face with those we care the most about.  The distance, the blank space, between a writer and her readers allows for a certain dispassion, an objectivity in our efforts to present our thoughts on a subject, but it creates the illusion of a clarity that doesn’t really exist in our search for answers about life’s deepest, most perplexing problems.  That search requires the warmth of companionship or the friendly voice of a personal letter.

Yet, that distance can work the other way, too, and it does for certain writers.  The distance between the blank pages E.B. White filled up in his typewriter in Maine and his audience of readers at The New Yorker freed him to say in print what he never could have said to any of them in person.  (See, for instance, his essay “Once More To The Lake.”)  And in my own case, I can recall many occasions feeling very close to some of the readers of my old baseball blog, Astroday, even though those readers were from Argentina and Germany and Mexico.  I’ve also felt very close to some of the readers of Books Here And There.  There have been moments when the distance between what I was writing and what you were reading shrank to almost nothing.  I treasure those moments whenever they happen.  No writer can ever be personally connected to all of his readers, and no writer would ever want to be.  But the objectivity of art–the reality that a novel, a poem, a play, an essay, or a sculpture is a made thing–carries with it an invitation to respect and admire that made thing, and perhaps to respect the artist, as well.  Go ahead and admire the art, by  all means.  But keep in mind that writers are not the characters they create.  I’ve said that before, most recently in my review of Gone Girl.  Add to that, if you will, Updike’s reminder that what we do in print is only a small part of what we do in life.



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