Against Relevance, part 1 (or, some notes for a post I’ve been working on for months)

John Updike’s a writer whose nonfiction I like far more than his much more vaunted fiction, which I find trivial and cloistered. (I can’t find an entryway into his world of New England suburbanites undergoing yet another marital crisis, and his sexual politics make me sigh. Then again, I could say much the same about Philip Roth’s oeuvre, and I love him, so maybe I’m just full of it.) Anyway, Updike’s book criticism for the New Yorker and elsewhere is superb. Thirty years ago, he offered up six rules of book criticism that are useful for other forms of arts criticism as well.

My favorite is #6, which begins this way:

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers.

The above tendencies, of course, are precisely what’s wrong with the current incarnation of the New York Times Book Review. NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus could learn from Updike. So could James Wood.

(Via Terry Teachout.)

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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4 Responses to Against Relevance, part 1 (or, some notes for a post I’ve been working on for months)

  1. Michael says:

    Walter, that last sentence of yours is the kicker. When I was reading Updike’s sixth lesson for reviewing, the first name that came to mind was “James Wood,” the man who pretty much breaks all the rules in Updike’s sixth point.
    By the way, I agree with you about Updike’s non-fiction; when he reviews books in The New Yorker, those reviews are typically the first thing I read before anything else in the magazine.

  2. Walter says:

    Wood was the first name in my head, too. Two years ago, Laura Miller provided the best take on his criticism (and Dale Peck’s) that I’ve read: you should read it out if you haven’t do so already. A key quote:
    “Though not technically religious, Wood thinks about literature religiously, and this, as much as his obvious intelligence and erudition, endears him to literary people, particularly authors, even when they disagree with him. It’s not hard to see why. If literature is a religion, then what does that make novelists? For the chosen few, something akin to gods. Of course, hardly any contemporary writers are permitted to enter Wood’s kingdom of heaven (only Monica Ali, in this collection), but many would rather see themselves as taking a long shot at divinity than as laboring in a quaint niche at the margins of a pop-mad society.”
    That’s exactly what Updike is arguing that critics shouldn’t do. It’s obvious that Updike takes literature and culture seriously, but he rarely pretends to be a high priest.

  3. Michael says:

    Walter, thanks very much for that link to the Laura Miller article. I don’t think I’ve seen it before, and I’m going to print it out and give it a good read-through.
    In the latest issue of the Kenyon Review, there’s an interview with Wood (here’s the link). I haven’t read the whole thing yet, but I did find it odd that he’d justify his concept of hysterical realism by saying that Zadie Smith disowned White Teeth and that she pointed out that hysterical realism was the right term for the book. I recall the quote that he’s referring to, and Smith didn’t “disown” her book — she just admitted it was flawed. In addition, her admission that hysterical realism is a precise term for her writing doesn’t amount to agreeing that hysterical realism is a bad thing.
    I like that quote about religiosity, and I think you’re right in saying that Updike is rarely a high priest — which why he’s readable.

  4. Walter –
    I wonder at the negative reactions to James Wood being bandied about. I’m fond of Wood’s TNR reviews and have enjoyed his The Irresponsible Self – including the hammering of ‘hysterical realism’ in his review of Zadie Smith and elsewhere.
    I can see why Wood takes lumps for his reviews – he’s very polemical, often taking a given book as an occasion for a broader argument about literature, and the White Teeth review is a good example. But I learned a lot about White Teeth from his essay, and his assessment resonated perfectly with my own experience of the book (as much as I could finish before massive boredom set in). He was also spot-on about Jonathan Franzen (another ‘hysterical realist’) in his Corrections review, though from the Kenyon interview he seems to have revised his opinion of Franzen down, or least presents it that way as a default position – which is a shame, and which perhaps hints at a certain pugilistic defect. His fair-minded and generous review of Franzen was one of the more insightful takes on the book, as I recall.
    But if he’s too broad in his dismissal of certain ‘hysterical realist’ writing (there’s a line from Cervantes through Pynchon, no doubt, and Quixotic joy and expansive humanness, his communitarian impulse, can be seen in Pynchon’s adventures through a glass darkly), stripped of its implicit judgment that term is absolutely perfect. The obsessive microscopic observation and worrying-over of David Foster Wallace’s sometimes unbearable fiction, combined with his sometime love of sheer stupid punnery and his broad-brush tendencies (cf. Infinite Jest), make for an enjoyable but at times difficult-to-take reading experience. DFW’s essays are marvelous, in part because writing about the real world keeps his Hyst. Real. tendencies in check. If Wood is wrong evaluatively speaking, analytically he’s right on the money. Meaning he’s worth reading even when he’s ‘wrong’ about a book – and I’m inclined to say that’s the mark of a fine critic.
    (Wood’s review of DfW’s Oblivion is not very positive, and is an example of an unfair reading – he doesn’t like the book because he doesn’t like DFW’s project. Indeed, he doesn’t even mention the book’s most astonishing piece, the very very short story ‘Incarnations of Burned Children,’ which might well have been more to his liking than anything else in the book. Oh well.)
    In any case – the Laura Miller article is good, a reminder that Salon actually employs a small handful of competent arts writers in addition to the usual gang of idiots.

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