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Monday, June 26, 2006

In Defense of a Certain Rabbit Who’s Running Scared

Posted by on June 26 at 12:33 PM

It’s not “in” to say this, especially post Hitchens’ Atlantic piece, but I like John Updike. I’m glad that he continues to exist. One of my friends raises an imaginary gun to her temple whenever The New Yorker publishes a new story by him. Former Stranger staffer Nate Lippens used to say: “Too male, too pale, to stale, too Yale,” which still makes me laugh. Paul Constant has a review of Updike’s Terrorist in The Stranger that comes out in a couple days, and I don’t want to give anything away, but the sub-headline of the review is: “Newsflash: John Updike Is Not ‘With It.’”

What inspires me to raise an imaginary gun to my temple, more often than not, is the Sunday New York Times Book Review, which was so crashingly boring this week I can’t bring myself to revisit it. The only thing I read to the end? On the last page, an essay by Updike commenting on that article by Kevin Kelly on the cover of the New York Times Magazine a couple weeks ago—the one about the end of physical books as we know them. That article was annoying, especially the part where—and Updike takes Kelly to task for this—Kelly describes that, once all books ever written by anyone are owned by everyone on the universal library of all written knowledge or whatever, copies of books are no longer going to be how writers make money. Writers will instead make money on “performances, access to the creator, personalization…” This is presented as an exciting development: more fetishization of the writer as opposed to the writing. Sounds like a goddamn nightmare. Kelly is the “senior maverick” for Wired magazine, and I bet he watches a lot of TV.

Incidentally, the Updike piece was adapted from a talk he gave at BookExpo America a couple weeks ago (a bookseller convention that Paul Constant ate pâté at).

And here’s a link for anyone who wants a lot more information about Updike’s career than you probably need.

UPDATE: I just found—on that abovelinked Updike page (actually, a sub-page called What’s New in Updikiana) a link to this rebuttal to John Updike on Time magazine’s website. Now, I loves me some Sean Wilsey, and he makes a lot of good points and a couple of choice digs (Updike is “a writer who hasn’t actually been edited for decades”), but Sean, what about the whole making-money issue? How do you feel about selling personal access to yourself as your only way of making a living? (This particular issue is complicated by you, Sean, since your book is a memoir—which is, you know, a way of selling to other people access to yourself.)

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This is such B.S. Look at every s-f vision of the future; regardless of whether it's post-apocalyptic or hopeful, the one thing that people of the future seem to universally treasure are - BOOKS! Old-fashioned, paper-bound, in a hard cover with lots of words written on the inside books!

Sure, it's just fanciful projection, but reading things on a computer terminal, video screen or even laser-impressed on the inside of your eyeballs will never make up for the feel, the weight, the anticipatory joy of holding a book in your own hands, an opening it to that first glorious page.

After firemaking and the wheel, the printed word is probably the next greatest invention conceived by mankind, with the book being the ultimate expression of that impulse to communicate, and no doubt will be equally long-lasting, right up to the time the last human being exhales their final breath.

The future is online. Soon there will be no newspapers, just blogs like this. Seattle doesn't need two Newspapers, if the P-I was smart it would go online now. Once Microsoft puts all books online, all you fools will have to burn your books because no one will want to read old fashioned books anymore.

A writer like Dan Savage does not sell access to his "personality" or allow a schedule of public appearances interfere with serious writing. Having the Slog is a nod to pure writing, not infotainment, or using writing to sell a personality or product.

I can't stand Updike as a novelist; his books (the later ones at least) are pastiches of his earlier work, or John Cheever, with all the descriptive bits -- sex, scenery -- pasted in like from a scrapbook. Ironically, they read like they were created by a computer.

But as a defender of the book, he's right on. Books aren't going anywhere. Look at your blogosphere superheroes, like Kos and InstaPundit -- what do they do when they get some real traction? They write books.

What might be dying is fiction, at least fiction written in English by Americans. I wouldn't know; I haven't read any in years that didn't make me wish I was illiterate. But this is the great age of non-fiction, which makes up for it.

Claiming that authorship is now about performance, not copyright, is usually the province of writers whose books don't sell, but are eager to make a career out of performing them. There ARE entertaining performer-writers -- David Sedaris, for instance -- but I don't think even Sedaris thinks that he is the model for all writing in the future.

Ultimately, the blog revolution is proving to be the place where you find -- not the replacement of traditional media, but the celebration of that replacement as it continues to not occur.

I know it's not cool to like John Updike, just like it's not cool to like printed matter in general, but I'm another person who really loves and admires Updike and looks forward to his regular essays in New York Review of Books and the once-a-year events that are his novels. Updike is the chronicler ne-plus-ultra of the world that disappeared in 1962 with the Kennedy assassination, and the affect that the disappearance had on our parents' generation. Unlike the navel gazing of Philip Roth or the pyrotechnics of Don Delillo, the incredibly engaging, well structed and realistic stories of John Updike offer us powerful insights into the world we have inherited: the world of the scared American white man, in over his head. Who could deny the impact that character has had on us all?

After the power stations have come crashing to the ground and all of our internet fantasies have disappeared like so much magnetic tape in the Mediterrean, Updike and his creations will be read as an accurate and lasting document of late 20th century America.

Christopher. Spot on. The NYT BR was an absolute snore. And I read that piece and liked it. There is something to the fact that the internet is moving society to more of an oral than written form. There's also something to the fact that books give you a deap plunge in the writers mind rather than skating on the surface. Books are certainly a more advanced medium and I think they'll be here long after the internet is gone and some weird brain broadcast thing.

Comte, I agree, but what happens as the decades wear on, the quantity of trees inevitably dwindles, as conservation, recycling and replanting efforts fail to match the exponentially increasing consumption of paper by businesses and presses alike, and we're faced with the possibility of running out of trees to make paper with?

Well, there are other things we can make paper out of. Faster growing, more maintainable things.

So why haven't we yet? We've had a hundred years and change to work on it.

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