lit the ancient past


John Updike - Time

I love writ­ing let­ters, but for some rea­son the only let­ter-to-the-edi­tor I've ever writ­ten went some­thing like this: 

Dear Mr. Rem­nick, If you pub­lish one more sto­ry by John Updike, so help me God I will can­cel my sub­scrip­tion immediately.Sincerely, Doug LeMoine

The year was 1999. I had been dri­ven to what I saw as the brink — of patience! of san­i­ty! — by the New Yorker's inces­sant pub­lish­ing of Updike's fic­tion, which seemed (to me) not only inces­sant, but over-styl­ized, nau­se­at­ing­ly East Coast-ish, maudlin, wood­en. No mat­ter my mood, I found it insuf­fer­able and insult­ing, tone-deaf when it came to any­thing but old­er white guys. I don't like to speak ill of the depart­ed, so I'll stop there and I'll admit that I've soft­ened in the mean­time. Updike's lit­er­ary crit­i­cism is — who can argue? — instruc­tive and insight­ful. He knew his stuff, and I felt enriched (some­times grudg­ing­ly so) when I read his reviews. With regard to the afore­men­tioned let­ter, my hand was forced almost imme­di­ate­ly. Updike had pub­lished some­thing like 25,000 sto­ries in the New York­er to that point, so I might as well have told John Hen­ry to stop dri­ving steel, or for Jer­ry Gar­cia to stop jam­ming. By the time my let­ter was flut­ter­ing into David Remnick's trash­can, I was already being forced to make good on my threat, a task that was ulti­mate­ly embar­rass­ing in its cold, bureau­crat­ic exe­cu­tion. Con­trary to any engaged reader's con­cep­tion of the pub­lish­er-read­er rela­tion­ship, when you say "I'd like to can­cel my sub­scrip­tion," they don't trans­fer you to the desk of the edi­tor so that you can ream him a new one. You hear a few key­strokes, and then get asked if there's any­thing else you need help with. Upon reflec­tion, this expe­ri­ence was a life les­son in itself. Mr. Updike, I thank you, and I wish you well.

2 replies on “Updike”

Well done, Doug. When I saw the news yes­ter­day, I couldn't think of any­thing to say that wouldn't either make me feel like a hyp­ocrite or make me feel like I was speak­ing ill of the dead. Espe­cial­ly in light of our recent con­ver­sa­tion with Alex about the Rab­bit books. But I was still sad. Many of the lit­er­ary lions have fall­en in the last sev­er­al months, and it's true that I read a short sto­ry or two of Updike's that I had to grudg­ing­ly admit that I liked (none of these, I might point out, did I read in the New York­er, though I'm sure they orig­i­nal­ly appeared there).

Thanks, Lynne. I had sim­i­lar reser­va­tions, and I've actu­al­ly mel­lowed more than my post prob­a­bly indi­cates. But I had a rep­u­ta­tion to live up to — as a provo­ca­teur, when it comes to Updike — so I tried to bridge that divide. It's true, though: The tone of cri­tique has to change when a per­son can no longer prove you wrong. I think my actu­al let­ter to David Rem­nick was laced with pro­fan­i­ty, and, unless my note is pinned to his bul­letin board, that aspect of the sto­ry has been scrubbed by the sands of time.

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