John Updike is the kind of author who takes great care in preserving even his most ephemeral publications for posterity. During his long career, he has periodically brought out collections of short stories that originally appeared in some of America’s most noted periodicals and assembled his essays and reviews in bulky volumes to which he has given clever titles such as Picked-Up Pieces (1975) and Odd Jobs (1991). Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism, his sixth collection of nonfiction, is an assemblage of book reviews, personal essays, and occasional pieces written during the eight years since the appearance of his previous anthology, More Matter, in 1999.
Although Updike has had the good fortune to publish much of his work in The New Yorker, quite a few of the essays he includes in Due Considerations made their first appearance in journals with much smaller circulation or in odd places that could have eluded Updike’s many fans. Consisting of two distinct forms of writing, the personal essay and the review, the volume is clearly intended for the thousands of people who enjoy Updike’s witty, conversational style and his somewhat self-deprecating humor. It is the kind of book admirers of his nonfiction might keep on their bedside tables, dipping into it for a pleasant diversion, a little bit of intellectual stimulation offered without the cloying self-importance of so much postmodern commentary. It is also the kind of collection that allows Updike to demonstrate again that, in addition to being one of America’s finest novelists, he is something of a polymath when it comes to critiquing not only literature but also other aspects of the American experience.
Just how wide his gaze can range is made clear in the first major section of the book, which he titles “Everything Considered.” Twenty-seven essays and short notices provide assessments of literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and Eudora Welty, tributes to baseball great Ted Williams and former New Yorker editor William Shawn, comments on his trip to China, andas one has come to expect from Updikemusings on the future of faith. The scope of his intellect and the subtlety of his insight are equally evident in the long middle segment of the volume, “Considering Books.” In more than seventy reviews, he offers critiques of the work of individual novelists, poets, and essayists and also shares his opinions on the state of literature throughout the world. Not all of these reviews cover literary works, however. In fact, some reviews seem at first to be far out of what would be considered the normal range for someone with Updike’s professional credentials. Fortunately, Updike’s editors at The New Yorker have allowed him great latitude, not only in the length of his reviews but also in the subjects about which he writes. Hence, alongside observations on novels and volumes of poetry, one finds Updike evaluating books on the sinking of the Lusitania, the fate of Gypsies in France, and the sexual revolution in America (though admittedly this is a topic on which he has written extensively in his fiction).
Quite a few of the literary reviews are of books by less well-known novelists, but Updike gives them the same care and attention he devotes to his critiques of work by writers with greater reputation. Further, the reviews in Due Considerations provide further evidence for Updike’s reputation as an exceptionally kind reviewer, always looking for what makes another writer’s work worth reading. In critiquing fiction, he often dwells on the author’s use of language and construction of the plot. His commentaries on poetry tend to focus on the poet’s ability to employ language in new and unusual ways. While he frequently measures writers against accepted standards for the genre in which they are working, he is generous in praising those willing to break conventional boundaries and try something new. When examining nonfiction, he zeroes in on the author’s ability to craft an argument and present it cogently and clearly. Updike is not shy to criticize when he finds harsh judgment necessary, but he seems willing to grant fellow writers a great deal of leeway in practicing their craftperhaps because he knows how hard one must work to appear at ease in print. On the other hand, he is not especially kind to academic critics who seem to have divorced literature from its social context and write of “texts” as if they were not somehow the products of authorial intention. Good writers, he argues in a number of essays, are present in their works and are passionately concerned about communicating with readers about matters great and...
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