John Updike’s “non-judgmental immersion”

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John Updike visiting Harvard University in 2000. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
— Philip Roth

I am beginning to explore the fiction of the post-war American writer John Updike. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Updike said in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” Upon his death in 2009, Updike’s friend and fellow storyteller, Joyce Carol Oates, wrote: “I never knew how serious John was about his Christian faith—or, rather, the Christian faith—though some sense of the sacred seems to suffuse his work like that sort of sourceless sunshine which illuminates an overcast day.”

In an article for The New Statesman, Judging John Updike,” David Baddiel writes some things of interest not only as they pertain specifically to Updike but generally to fiction:

The issue of Updike’s greatness hangs over this new biography by Adam Begley, who tries in his introduction to dismiss any anxiety that the subject of this long, insightful and meticulously researched book may be a second-rank talent by asserting: “Predicting his eventual place in the pantheon of American literature is . . . no more useful than playing pin-the-tail with the genius label.” This anxiety, though, reflects a fairly consistent category error in American critical circles. Updike’s central creative project – like that of Jane Austen, George Eliot or Joyce but, I would contend, more extremely, perhaps more artfully, even than any of those – is, in his own phrase, to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

He is the great poet of the ordinary life, of domesticity, of life as most people live it – as opposed to Saul Bellow, who writes mainly about life as deep-thinking intellectuals, academics and writers live it (and who was considered, mistakenly, a better writer throughout that time when the “Great Male Narcissists”, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase, ruled the literary cosmos). The problem for gravitas-chasing critics such as Bloom and Wood was that Updike writes small – and they mistook this for the size of his talent. “Small” doesn’t really do him justice. A better word would be “microscopic”: using the microscope of his extraordinary prose, Updike reveals and articulates the largest mysteries of life.

***

As well as being an intricate portrayal of the man, Updike is also a sustained, very fine work of literary criticism. It is particularly good on Updike’s artistic amorality. By “amorality”, I don’t mean that there are no moral principles underlying his work but that there is – as regards the behaviour of his main characters – an absence of blame. There is a problem with the way people read novels now, most obvious in Amazon reviews, in which readers consistently confuse whether or not a novel is good with whether or not they “like” the characters. Generally, readers imagine that if they don’t like the characters in a novel, it is a bad book.

To make matters worse, whether or not they like the characters is usually based on whether or not the characters behave nicely. All of this is a disaster for literature and particularly for Updike, whose characters never behave nicely or, indeed, evilly – they just behave like people do, in a flawed way. “People are incorrigibly themselves” was his motto in creating his people.

In a lecture that Adam Begley quotes, Updike defines his “aesthetic and moral aim” as “non-judgemental immersion” and he followed this throughout his career, achieving its apotheosis most completely in the character of Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit series. No religious writer (he was a practising Christian all his life, and Updike’s infusion of smallness with significance is generated by a sense of seeing everywhere – in a pigeon feather, in a golf swing, in sex – the divine) has ever been so non-judgemental.

***

He just lets his characters – and their damaging conflicts between duty and desire – stand. As William Maxwell, his editor for many years at the New Yorker, once wrote (in a letter comforting him following another critical accusation of shallowness), his fiction is always “concentrated reflection”: the mirror is never skewed by morality.

This, I think, is another reason why Updike has so many detractors. Ever since F R Leavis wrote The Great Tradition, there has been a school of literary criticism that has demanded that great novelists also be great moralists: that the job of the writer is not just to reflect the world but to tell it the difference between right and wrong.

That is a mistake. A good writer leaves that decision to the reader; a great writer challenges our preconceptions of right and wrong by forcing us to engage and sympathise with characters who confound those preconceptions. The job of the artist is not to pardon or pass sentence upon the world but simply – or not simply, for this is the difficult thing – to show it and its most complex and most difficult truths.

Updike’s lodestar for the novel was, as Begley points out, Stendhal’s contention: “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.” Updike wrote in the way he did because his mirror was extremely bright and his road was very long – it was America and the world beyond. He wrote in the way he did, in other words, not because he had nothing to say but because he had everything to say. 

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3 thoughts on “John Updike’s “non-judgmental immersion”

  1. Very nice. I have a whole folder of bookmarks on Updike, so just in case you’re interested I’m listing some of them here. Mostly linked from Micah Mattix’s amazing Prufrock newsletter.

    * New Republic: William Deresiewicz, “The Great Symphony of American Junk.” What David Foster Wallace misunderstood about John Updike.

    * Public Discourse: Gerald R. McDermott, “‘A Rather Antinomian Christianity’: John Updike’s Religion.”

    * Public Discourse: Daniel Ross Goodman, “Updike’s Wager: Brilliance, Doubt, and the Miracle of Existence.”

    * Books & Culture: Mark Oppenheimer, “Why Everyone Used to Read Updike.” And why his best stories are still worth reading.

    * Books & Culture: Scott Dill, “My Hitherto Inadequately Superficial World.” Reading John Updike’s stories.

    * Books & Culture: Scott Dill, “Updike: A Life in Motion.” Amiably coaxing us to pay attention.

    • Thank you for sharing these promising resources. I look forward to the reading. Do you have some favorite short stories by Updike?

      • I’m embarrassed to say, I’ve only read a few of the famous ones, and a sort of random smattering of other things (The Coup; art reviews in the New Yorker, etc.) … but having skimmed a few of those articles, it looks like there were a few that explicitly touch on Christian faith in one way or another, so sooner or later I’d like to look at those. In any case, looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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