Updike, John (Vol. 2)
Updike, John 1932–
John Updike is one of those writers around whom we have generated a flamboyance of celebrity quite out of keeping with the value of anything they have so far written. In any reasonably discriminating age a young man of Mr. Updike's charming but limited gifts might expect to make his way in time to a position of some security in the second or just possibly the third rank of serious American novelists. But this is not a discriminating age. Hence, Mr. Updike has been able to arrive with ease at the very gates of first-rank status, and considering the size and fervor of his following, he should have no trouble at all getting in….
Mr. Updike has none of the attributes we conventionally associate with major literary talent. He does not have an interesting mind. He does not possess remarkable narrative gifts or a distinguished style. He does not create dynamic or colorful or deeply meaningful characters. He does not confront the reader with dramatic situations that bear the mark of an original or unique manner of seeing and responding to experience. He does not challenge the imagination or stimulate, shock, or educate it. In fact, one of the problems he poses for the critic is that he engages the imagination so little that one has real difficulty remembering his work long enough to think clearly about it. It has an annoying way of slipping out of the mind before one has had time to take hold of it, and of blending back into the commonplace and banal surfaces of reality, which are so monotonous a part of our daily awareness that the mind instinctively rejects them as not worth remembering.
Yet there can be no doubt that Mr. Updike does on occasion write well, although often with a kind of fussiness that makes one feel that the mere act of finding words that look attractive together on the page occupies entirely too much of his time and energy. There are, nonetheless, passages here and there in his novels of excellent description, mostly of landscapes…. There are also moments when Mr. Updike seems on the verge of becoming profound on the subject of the larger issues of life, love, death, and God. But then as a rule one senses that he does not, after all, know quite what he means to say and is hoping that sheer style will carry him over the difficulty….
Mr. Updike shared with his admirers the handicap of being a good many years behind the times in his literary tastes. For example, his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was exactly the sort of book that back in the twenties and thirties would have represented an honest and rather radical confrontation of reality, but which by the middle fifties had become so respectably and fashionably "modern" that schools of writing were proudly turning it out by the dozens. It was a book essentially of style and terribly oblique and opaque and tinily inward observations of people, in which nothing discernible happened, but everything went on with dark throttled meaningfulness just beneath the surfaces, and faint ectoplasmic wisps of sensibility floated spookily about the page. In it Mr. Updike proved not only that he could work well in an outmoded convention, but that he could, if the need arose, write to cover a lapse of book-length duration.
(The entire section is 6,836 words.)