A recent review of More Matter in Private Eye snootily (and anonymously) gives John Updike the Cambridge backhand. “Entirely gratuitous,” it finds this 928-page compendium of reviews and casual pieces. Who wants to know, it asks, about “the best American stories of 15 years back” or “mediocre novels from 30 years ago”? Well, who-apart from this snoot-says that they are mediocre? But the tiresome reviewer witters on. “This is vanity publishing in the strictest sense of the term-a book that was published to flatter the author’s ego.” It is the sort of insolence which brings reviewing into disrepute and, as such, is the antithesis of any review by Updike.
Notoriously, the author of the Rabbit tetralogy, the delectable Bech stories and a compendium of superlative writing, is a kind reviewer. He shares the view of Anthony Burgess (also a victim of loftiness from below) that writing a book is a great toil underground and that to be smashed on the head afterwards-even with a cardboard shovel-is a rotten experience. Decent fellow writers should withhold such smashing.
Updike, poor thing, will never catch that tone of easy dismissal, the Lady Bracknell-ese, the flick in the face with a long glove and the dumb-smart incuriosity which makes our critical scene so clever and sterile. The reader of More Matter should settle instead for the ambling effect of a very powerful limousine in low gear. He will be presented with a writer’s reflections on a great mass of serious writing. Slipped into these reflections are big little judgments, for example when Updike gently pushes away a novel by Alain de Botton: “Why does psychology weary us when dressed in characters and incidents? It is a form of mechanistic diminishment… when what we seek, gropingly in fiction, is enlargement, a glorification of the furtive and secret and seemingly trivial, a valorisation of human experience.”
This could be taken as validation for Updike’s own novels, and the sympathy he shows towards his own creations. It is part of the man, novelist and critic. Updike is a conservative, but a tender one who can write with understanding about an unfashionable radical like Theodore Dreiser-whom he admires for a shared humanistic concern for actual people. But he is still a mildly insistent reproacher of style. Arundhati Roy is admired for her sheer scope: “a massive interlocking structure of fine, intensely felt details.” Updike the golfer pays…