John Updike is one of America's most renowned men of letters. Best known for his prize-winning novels and short stories, he is also an accomplished poet, an author of children's books, memoirs and a play, and one of our finest literary critics and essayists. In his new collection, Due Considerations, he shares work of the last eight years or so and dazzles us once again.
These essays are general considerations, with sections on American and English fiction, along with novels from other parts of the world; art (Updike once aspired to be a graphic artist); literary biography; appreciations and considerations of writers and others; and Updike's contribution to the NPR series This I Believe. The key part of the collection is Updike's literary criticism. He is perceptive and insightful, generous with praise, but very specific about reservations he may have. He is also keenly aware of his limitations. As he looked over the reviews included in the book, he says he wondered if their customary geniality, almost effusive in the presence of a foreign writer or a factual topic, didn't somewhat sour when faced with a novel by a fellow-countryman. But, he concludes, a book reviewer must write what is felt at the time, when impressions are still warm and malleable, and leave second thoughts to prefaces. Over the years Updike has been asked to comment on his childhood reading. He had forgotten an account he wrote for the New York Times in 1965 until it reappeared on the Times website in 1997. He included it here because, he says, it rings truer than any of the too-numerous later attempts of mine to describe my childhood reading. His earliest literary memory is of his fear of the spidery, shadowy, monstrous illustrations in a large deluxe edition of Alice in Wonderland in his family's collection.
He is a copious reader and careful researcher, exhibiting familiarity with other works by and about the author whose work he is discussing. He also spends a lot of time describing what happens in the book at hand. It would be fair to say of Updike what he writes of Frank Kermode, whom he considers the best of English book reviewers: decent devotion to literary merit and a humble and tenacious will to explicate the best examples of it. A longtime contributor to The New Yorker, Updike writes with authority about such literary legends as E.B. and Katharine White, William Shawn and William Maxwell. He does not hesitate to say that a biographer of John O'Hara does not, it seemed to me, get The New Yorker exactly right. He proceeds to set the record straight on facts and interpretation, including, for example, a previously unpublished tribute to Tina Brown, when she abruptly left as editor of The New Yorker in 1998. He notes that she made the magazine more woman-friendly and celebrity-friendly, that she brought fun into the production process, into the publicity process, and decreed a party atmosphere. He continues, Her party in these offices is over, but its brave vibrations linger into the new dawn. This cornucopia of writing by a master will delight many readers.
Roger Bishop is a retired Nashville bookseller and a frequent contributor to BookPage.