Usually, I tell people there are four, maybe five living American writers who can safely be considered the best, the greatest, the most talented. Philip Roth, Don Delilo, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, and John Updike. The number of living legends is now securely down to four, as Updike died today at the age of 76, of lung cancer. He published 40 books throughout his lifetime, a remarkably prolific amount. If you’re new to Updike, there are a couple places to start: the Rabbit series, or the short stories.
Comparable to Philip Roth’s Zuckerman saga in its audacious desire to cover a seemingly vast amount of American experience, Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom novels (there are four of them, all incredible, with Rabbit Redux and Rabbit at Rest standing slightly above the other two) chronicle the life, thoughts, feelings, smart and stupid decisions, affairs, aging, and ultimate death of an American everyman, the former basketball star turned used car salesman.
It’s impossible to go into exactly what makes that series of books so incredible, except to say that if you ever wanted to understand even a little bit of what the average suburban American male aging throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s felt like, thought about; or simply what it felt like to be around during that time, an observer, someone living, Updike is the one to turn to. It’s not just a slice of life from a specific moment, it is literally the famous middle-American experience captured better, in more detail, than anywhere else, by anyone else. Ah, and as every other obituary will surely mention: he wrote about sex, he did it often, and he did it very well.
Ever, in a fleeting moment while you’re yelling back at MSNBC, try to understand the generational makeup that lies behind the culture war? You could do a hell of a lot worse than pick up Nixonland and the Rabbit quadrilogy. Read them all back-to-back and call it a university-level seminar in boomer mentality. Says David Lipsky: “The Vietnam-era “Rabbit Redux” gives a better sense of what 1969 America felt like than any book — not to mention movies, TV shows or straight history. From the beginning Updike set himself the task of recording every input a fairly ordinary, ordinarily lucky middle-class person might be expected to log over a seventy-year life. In this, he had no serious competition for four decades.”
But all this wouldn’t amount to much if it weren’t for his writing, which happens to be compulsively readable, easy to get lost in; a pleasure. There are scenes in his books that I still remember years later, characters who remain terribly vivid long after I’ve put the book down.
If you’re not the type to jump into a four-novel series, grab The Early Stories: 1953 - 1975. After reading so many of his novels, it’s a pleasure to return to one of the masters of the form, and this collection is phenomenal. There’s a specific tone to these stories that dozens of other writers try to capture; some come close, but the best of Updike will always stand on its own as truly his.
One thing that always illuminates our impressions is a writer’s description of how he or she works, and Updike is no exception. These glimpses into a workday don’t just serve to inspire other writers, they give us an idea of how an author functions, how a person we rely upon and ask to deliver a word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence chronicle of our daily lives goes about putting this into practice.
I’ve always been fascinated by how Updike worked, and pictured him sitting at his desk outside of Boston, smoking away, reaching his daily word limit, and then spending the rest of his time writing his wonderful criticism or a series of hilarious letters. For some reason that thought has always reassured me, and every time I crack a New Yorker to find a new essay or–even better–a new short story, or see his latest novel on the shelves, I’m reassured once more.
Here he is, in his own words, talking about a routine that finally came to an end today:
I’m a slow writer who works rather short hours.
I was reading last night about Hawthorne working all day when he was doing “The Scarlet Letter.” Other writers mention 10-hour days. And you read of fantastic word rates that writers achieve — 5,000 words a day.
When I set out, I decided that about 1,000 words a day would be a good quota. … My working day generally goes from about 9 to 1, when I get hungry.
Maintaining this modest demand on myself has produced, as you say, a fair number of books.
And a second reflection, this one tinged with his recent, self-aware mortality:
I have no reason not to go to my desk after breakfast and work there until lunch. So, I work three or four hours in the morning, and it’s not all covering blank paper with beautiful phrases. You begin by answering a letter or two. There’s a lot of junk in your life as a writer and most people have junk in their lives. But, I try to give about three hours to the project at hand and to move it along. There’s a danger if you don’t move it along steadily that you’re going to forget what it’s about, so you must keep in touch with it I figure. So once embarked, yes, I do try to stick to a schedule. I’ve been maintaining this schedule off and on — well, really since I moved up to Ipswich in ‘57. It’s a long time to be doing one thing. I don’t know how to retire. I don’t know how to get off the horse, though. I still like to do it. I still love books coming out. I love the smell of glue and the shiny look of the jacket and the type, and to see your own scribbles turned into more or less impeccable type. It’s still a great thrill for me, so I will probably persevere a little longer.