The Literary Heirs and Pretenders

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It is with some amusement that I view the round-robin literary feud that is the rivalary between John Updike, John Irving, Norman Mailer, and the would-be literary giant Tom Wolfe. Amusement, in part, because the substance of these, and of all more recent pretenders to the throne--Bellow, Roth, Franzen, Pynchon, and so on--is so slight in comparison to the giants upon whose shoulders they stand.

I am no fan of Hemingway, either prose nor narrative, and yet I recognize in his work a towering brilliance--the brilliance of radical simplicity, of tearing down the facades and saying things as simply as they might be said. And Fitzgerald--who can have much sympathy for his endless array of vacant, vapid, and self-involved caricatures, trotted across a glamorous stage to no effect--yet the prose is supply, strong--accepting the revisionism of Anderson and Hemingway, and yet altering it to be a kind of poetry in prose--capturing perfectly single moments, which unfortunately do not make a book. And then there is Faulkner whose theme is the weight of the living past which we all bear even if we never bother to acknowledge the bearing of--whose prose is anti-Hemingway--the logical extension of the experiments of Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf--creating a thick atmosphere, full of the dense shadows of spanish-moss weighted trees and the odor of verbena or honeysuckle. And Steinbeck whose lithe and supple prose benefited from the reforms of the early century, but whose heart was always with the oppressed, even if his political solutions often left much to be desired. His stories are strong, sometimes almost mythically so.

And against his we have? A Month of Sundays, the interminable sexual explorations of a minister and his wife, The World According to Garp, the intermindable sexual explorations of a delilberate illegitimacy, I Am Charlotte Simmons (the less said about, the better) Portnoy's Complaint, Exit Ghost. . . The list could go on to the sounding of the trump. But none of these has the sheer thematic and mythic weight of the giants of the earlier part of the century. Why might this be? And are there those who may have that weight?

As unpopular as it might be to say so, I see some of that power and much of that authority that comes from moral certainty, in works by Toni Morrison, most particularly the horrendously difficult Beloved. When attention is given to the weight of the past and not to the passing fancy of a gratuitous lust (the predominant theme of many of the modern claimants), we begin to find something in the work that rises to the level of these giants.

Is there anyone writing whose prose offers the sheer silken suppleness of a Fitzgerald? I think we've mostly decided that we can dispense with that as an artifact of a bygone era. And perhaps it is--crystallized in its time and in its own virtuosic perfection.

But the rank and file of those who write today will have to be seen through those more removed than we in order to determine relative merit. Frankly, I can't see many of them surviving the concerns that drove them to write, because those concerns are so confined to our own perverse and blinkered era.

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Funny, I just started reading "The Great Gatsby" this weekend and couldn't put it down. Lord but he could write! I think you're unfair with Updike. Updike has written a lot of books that are totally unsalacious (though his books are very uneven, some lyrical some pedestrian). So if Fitzgerald is given a pass for his silken writing without much substance than why not Updike? But I do think you are onto something with that moral certainty argument.

RE: Is there anyone writing whose prose offers the sheer silken suppleness of a Fitzgerald? I think we've mostly decided that we can dispense with that as an artifact of a bygone era.

Indeed, just as we've dispensed with beauty in art and just as poetry has faded away to obscurity. Literary fiction is the last hurrah for beauty and if it was a stock, you'd have to short it.

Dear TSO,

While Fitzgerald has a facility with prose that is uncanny, Updike's only occasionally rises to that level, and most of the time that is in the books whose themes and concerns are radically dated. (And this after having read nearly everything Updike has put between two covers.)

It's interesting, I find myself much more involved and engaged with the characters Updike has created, but rarely interested in the stories or the facility of the prose. Whereas with Fitzgerald, I find myself ultimately disengaged from the characters who run the gamut from giddy to witless but the power of his writing compels.

Updike is just not terribly compelling. I enjoy reading his work, but I'm rarely enthralled.

Gatsby is a perfect case in point--if you haven't yet finished it, revisit the scene in the room with the two women just before Tom walks in. Unsubtle resolution to the symbolic action, but refined prose--gorgeous and rich.

(And this after having read nearly everything Updike has put between two covers.)

This seems like something I would say just before saying, "see my blog title". You praise the giants though you're just now getting around to reading all of Faulkner even though you've already read all of Updike. I can sympathize!

That was me.

Dear TSO,

Yes, as I've said, Faulkner is hard, and it probably takes a certain maturity as a reader to be willing to engage on his terms. (Maturity as a reader or the hubris of the young--one or the other.)

Updike makes few demands on either the technical skill or comprehension of his readers. Nor are his works particularly richly symbolic (with some notable exceptions--The Centaur etc.) Which is not to say that they are light, but they are, as far as prose goes, relatively undemanding.



(Maturity as a reader or the hubris of the young--one or the other.)

Steven, Steven you disappoint...I thought you'd come out of the womb as a mature reader. Or at least you've been one for 20 years or so. *grin*

I have to point out that that you're showing a kind of ignorance with your statement in "Updike makes few demands on either the technical skill...".

He makes demands on those of us who are not at your level. Such as, well, me.

It amuses me that we tend to think that everyone is exactly like us when, most obviously if we think about it, everybody is not. That's part of the problem behind the war in Iraq: the Bush administration (like the Wilson administration before) thought that everyone wants a democracy, particularly an American-style democracy.

Dear TSO,

He does not make upon you the kinds of demands made by Henry James, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, or a myriad of others I could name.

He may make demands, but his sentences are not impossible to parse, nor are they overelaborations of a theme. In some sense he may well be the Dickens of our day--accessible enough with enough substance to be considered reputable. And like Dickens, his reputation over time may rise and fall with the currency and importance of his themes. The Centaur, Rabbit Run, and In the Beauty of the Lilies may stand a better chance of survival than The Witches of Eastwick (Actually a personally favorite of mine, or S. I don't know. But I do know that you underestimate yourself on a regular basis.

As to maturity as a reader--I'm surprised at how immature I am at times--the authors I avoid with the squeamishness of the high-school sophmore waiting until the last minute to read the cliff notes. Mostly because I can't read them and watch TV or cruise the web or listen to music or play pokemon with Samuel at the same time. Any demands above these tend to make me shy away--hence, Updike makes for suitable reading at these times, as does most of the Hard Case line, and, for that matter Steinbeck. Lines that slip past the internal sensor and which translate reasonably into common English and relatively easy comprehension.

I'm surprised to hear you intimate that Updike makes demands and I would welcome more information on that either here or privately. Because, of course, you are right, I don't know what everyone is capable of and I see my own abilities as exceedingly meagre and so equivalent of nearly all.

I'm not unintelligent--that would be false modesty--but neither am I prodigiously intellectually endowed. Shakespeare challenges me--Updike, Bellow, and Roth do not. But I suspect that we may be talking about different kinds of challenges and perhaps that is where I miss your point. So, if you've time and energy to do so, I'd really like to hear more.

Oh, and ignorance R us!! Sorry, but it's the truth, I only live inside this body with this mind and so my assumptions are obviously biased and I never fail to be amazed when someone or something fails to live up (or down) to them.




Perhaps what I mean to say is that Updike's prose makes few demands. That is the mark of his art--he is superb at writing fluid, comprehensible, intelligible sentences. You don't usually need to read and reread just to get the sense of where he's going. (Although there are a few short stories and even an essay or tow where this is not the case. And let's not mention the poetry. I've yet to acquire the taste.



Well, I guess it depends who you're comparing him to. Henry James, James Joyce, etc... yes, of course he's easier than those folks. But he's not exactly a mass marketeer like Tom Clancy. The symbolism in many of his short stories is obscure. Now the Rabbit series I agree is easy reading. But "Gertrude and Claudius", for example, was not an easy read in the sense of knowing exactly what was happening at all times. (I read it four or more years ago, else I'd be more clear in the nature of the obscurities I encountered.) Of course, I don't get within a mile of Joyce or James so there you have it.

Some of the rot's reached even sf/f;
and yet for beauty perched upon the page
and prone to frequent flights,
give me my ghetto.

There prowls the lone true Wolfe -
and Vance, blind poet,
and humbler keyboards tapping out their way.

The night crowds in, but in the dark shine stars.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 15, 2008 8:17 AM.

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