Friday, June 11, 2010

Introduction - John Updike

In 1984 I turned 12.

A month after my birthday I was going to be entering the seventh grade. The divorce of my parents was four years behind me and I had settled into life as best as I could. My mother had remarried and my father was dating but I can’t at this time remember the name of the woman.

My life in 1984 was actually pretty uneventful. I was between elementary school and high school. I had not yet hit full-blown puberty (that was 2 years away) but my interest in girls and sex had arrived.

It was a strange time for me. I think 12 is a tough age.

I wrote the above in hopes of it leading me into some sort of introduction to the introduction of “The Best American Short Stories” 1984, but I can’t seem to find any connective ties between it and the opening pages of this collection

I think that the only connection is that at 12 I was on the edge of change – Updike’s characters wrestled with change.

I am a bit intimidated about commenting on the words of Updike just as I was with John Gardner and Joyce Carol Oates.

You don’t get much heavier than Updike.

I have read the introduction he wrote for the anthology, read his interview with “The Paris Review”, read the profile of him from “Contemporary Authors Online”, read various webpages from fans as well as critics and I will be making an attempt to listen to two interviews with him before I post this intro.

I think the best way to get my feelings across about him without completely making a fool out of myself is to paste a couple of quotes by him that really stood out to me.

“When I write, I aim in my mind not toward new York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the book on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.” (The Paris Review interview)

This is a wonderful little piece of information about Updike – that he has the thought or at least the thought to say that he is aiming towards a certain audience. A nice little way to say that he is aiming at the heart of America.

"There is a great deal to be said about almost anything," he explained to Jane Howard in a Life magazine interview. "Everything can be as interesting as every other thing. An old milk carton is worth a rose." (Contemporary Authors Online)

This quote gives hope to me when I think about this little exercise that I am involved in. I have over these past couple of years written about a lot – and a lot of what I have written has been a bunch of worthless drivel.

Terry Gross From NPR’s Fresh Air interviewed Updike in 1989 – 20 years ago and they focused quite a bit on his latest book “Self-consciousness”.

-“Writing is a funny kind of magic you know? You can take a series of painful experiences and just in writing about them you somehow get rid of the pain.

-“When you write about something, in a strange way, you become “lightened of it”.”

Both of the above really speak to me because I feel that what I am doing with this wole exercise is getting rid of some pain as well as lightening my mental load and learning a bit about myself.

- “The whole idea of a face is slightly funny isn’t it?”

Again – put nicely and I can relate as I have always felt a bit uncomfortable with my features.

- “Well, I think telling the truth is kind of a ruthless act. Both in specifics, since you do invade some privacies, in fiction and in the larger way, you are trying to or I am trying to as it were, to rub humanities face in the facts of our existence.

That there is much that is ignoble and desperate about being a human being and my fiction is in part motivated by pointing these things out.

So yes there is something ruthless and cruel... even to generate suspense, it’s a bit of a tease isn’t it?

So there’s a kind of sadistic element in the writers attempt to keep the readers interest.”

Gross asks him - “Do you think it’s your demons that keep you writing?”

-“I think there is something demonic in the complete writer – yes.

I think that an ideally nice person would probably not become a writer; I try to write pleasantly, fairly more than pleasantly. I feel there is much in life that is frightening and unpleasant and that we are among other things cruel beings and all of these all of the shadow side of one’s self knowledge of course goes into writing and in a way energizes it. It gives you the energy to undertake this fantastic activity every morning.”

So, I could go on and on pasting and typing up quotes by Updike all day. There really are some wonderful turns of phrase out there but I need to get reading this volume and stop dwelling on this man.

The introduction that Updike provides is pretty standard without any real notable pronouncements.

“I want stories to startle and engage me within the first few sentences, and in their middle to widen or deepen or sharpen my knowledge of human activity...”

“Each is a glimpse into another country: an occasion for surprise, an excuse for wisdom and an argument for charity.”

Now, before I start to report on these stories, I’d like to touch again on the love/hate relationship that David Foster Wallace had with Updike.

The fact is that I am probably classifiable as one of very few
actual sub-40 Updike fans. Not as rabid a fan as, say, Nicholson Baker,
but I do think that The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm and The Centaur are
all great books, maybe classics. And even since Rabbit Is Rich -- as his
characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any
corresponding indication that the author understood that they were
repellent -- I've continued to read Mr. Updike's novels and to admire the
sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose.

John Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat, Drops One; Is This Finally the End for Magnificent Narcissists? by David Foster Wallace The New York Observer October 13, 1997

and then -

"Because Updike, I think has never had an unpublished thought. And that he’s got the ability to put it in very lapidary prose. But that Updike presents one with a compressed Internet problem, is there’s 80 percent absolute dreck, and 20 percent priceless stuff. And you have to wade through so much purple gorgeous empty writing to get anything that’s got any kind of heartbeat in it. Plus, I think he’s mentally ill.

You really do don’t you?

Yeah. I think he’s a nasty person. And I’ll tell you, if you think I hate him? Talk to – bring up his name to [to J. Franzen]. "

Page 92-93 of “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”.

And the above quote was made in 1996 during Wallace’s Infinite Jest tour. A year before he wrote the New York Observer piece.

I feel the two above criticisms are exactly as Updike would like to have his writing interpreted.

Wallace wrestled with his own demons and mental illness, and was, at times willing to discuss his depression and how it was pulling him under.

Updike draws a line connecting ruthlessness, sadistic tendencies, truth telling (which some people don’t like to hear) and his writing.

I don’t think Updike would consider Wallace’s charge an insult – rather, I think he would take it as someone pointing out the obvious. “Big deal” he would say.

Perhaps it was a cheap shot from Wallace – perhaps it is the “young” bucking up against the “old” – which would be welcoming and expected of and to both authors.

In either case, I seem to have presented myself another case of the snake eating his tail.

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