Most teachers of creative writing exhort students to write every day and to read widely to improve both their knowledge of the world and their sense of style. John Updike would be a good model for students to follow, for he must write or read all day long in order to produce the output attributed to him. In Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism, Updike presents readers with a collection of his miscellaneous essays and reviews that have appeared in literary magazines and popular highbrow periodicals during the 1980’s. Organized in three sections, the work includes some half-dozen personal essays, a short play, several long pieces of literary criticism that originated as lectures and speeches, a collage of personal reminiscences, and—the centerpiece of the collection—reviews of more than 140 books (mostly novels, but a goodly number of biographies, collections of essays, and even political writings). Such a fat collection—some 872 pages of text—would be an impressive monument in itself. This one comes from a writer who, during the same ten-year period, produced ten books. Such output might prompt even the most voracious reader or learned scholar to ask a bit incredulously: When does this man sleep?
“One accepts editorial invitations,” Updike tells readers in his preface, “in the hopes of learning something, or of extracting from within some unsuspected wisdom. For writing educates the writer as it goes along.” The opening essays in the “Fairly Personal” section are much like chatty monologues from a very knowledgeable friend. Always the master of the conversational style, Updike has as his particular strength his open, transparent mind. This is not to suggest that he is simplistic; rather, he is able to understand his own ideas and feelings so completely, then render them so clearly, that readers can find themselves in sympathy—meant in its literal sense as fellow-feeling—with him. Nowhere does this come through more than in the opening essay, a description of his short stay in Finland, where he felt like an outsider because of the difficulty in communicating with the locals, and in the penultimate vignette of the collection, in which he describes cleaning out the family home in Shillington, Pennsylvania, after his mother’s death in 1989. Then, too, he feels the sensation of being an outsider and alone; and he is able to communicate the sensory experiences of loss and grief to readers without stooping to the maudlin. It is precisely because of this kind of insight and this ability to exert control over language that Updike has attracted and maintained a loyal following who have brought his books by the thousands (and made him a millionaire in the process).
No doubt what most impresses readers (perhaps even overwhelms them) on first browsing through Odd Jobs is the assemblage of book reviews, introductions, and commentaries on other writers. The sheer quantity seems staggering when one considers that they were all written within a decade. Added to that is the range of subjects and authors. Readers are fortunate that Updike’s publishers, especially the editors of The New Yorker, send him a wide array of novels and nonfiction on which he is allowed to pass extended judgment. Reviews of books by American giants Ernest Hemingway, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Vladimir Nabokov are scattered amid those discussing the works of other contemporary Americans such as Ann Beattie and Annie Dillard and dozens of international figures, among them Jorge Luis Borges, Umberto Eco, Italo Calvino, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. There are dozens of investigations of other writers less well known in North America—ones from the Eastern Bloc, from Africa, from the South and Central American regions. Many are reviews of foreign works written earlier in the century but only made available in English translation during the 1980’s. Delivered piecemeal in more than a hundred of these reviews, Updike’s survey of world contemporary writing is deftly done, with only a hint of the personal voice that dominates the occasional essays. He seems to be able to speak lucidly and with authority regardless of his subject. Though discerning readers know this collection merely skims the surface of books published during the 1980’s, Odd Jobs could be read as a literary history—indeed, a world literary history—of that decade.
Scanning any one of the reviews will quickly give one the sense that Updike has read everything. Like the best of reviewers, he is able to make precise comparisons (or at least make readers think he is doing so). An example of his wide range of reading is illustrated in one of the shorter reviews, a thousand-word piece on the 1984...
(The entire section is 1931 words.)