"A drop of truth, of lived experience, glistens in each." This is how John Updike, one of the world's most acclaimed novelists, modestly describes his nonfiction work, the brilliant and graceful essays and criticism he has written for more than five decades. Due Considerations is his sixth collection, and perhaps the most moving, stylish, and personal volume yet. Here he reflects on such writers and works as Emerson, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Colson Whitehead, The Wizard of Oz, Don DeLillo, The Portrait of a Lady, Margaret Atwood, The Mabinogion, and Proust. Updike also provides a whimsical and insightful list of "Ten Epochal Moments in the American Libido," from Pocahontas and John Smith to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; muses on how the practice of faith changes but doesn't disappear; and shares his reaction to the attacks on 9/11 (in Brooklyn that day, "Freedom, reflected in the street's diversity and quotidian ease, felt palpable"). Due Considerations proves that John Updike is, as noted in The Boston Globe, "our greatest critic of literature."
Starred Review. Updike's latest is an endlessly welcoming series of essays--every nonfiction piece he has published in the past eight years--offering Updike's characteristically reasoned perspective on a familiar range of subjects, including Old Masters artwork, literary biography and the history of the New Yorker. The heart of the book is Updike's literary criticism, characterized by a wide lens that summarizes a good portion of an author's output: this collection is invaluable for Updike's generous assessments of contemporaries such as Gabriel Garc�a M�rquez, Orhan Pamuk and Alan Hollinghurst. Updike is still at his most vibrant when sexual politics are close at hand, and his summary undressing of David Allyn's history of the sexual revolution, Make Love, Not War, is brilliant in its mingling of personal and social history. As a collection, this is also notable for its high volume of occasional writing: book introductions, short speeches and responses to magazine requests, no matter how ephemeral, are all gathered to overwhelming effect. It is hard to complain about too much of a good thing in this addition to the formidable Updike collection. 25 illus. (Oct. 29)
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Excerpt from Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism by John Updike
Chapter One: Everything Considered On Literary Biography (A talk given on November 13, 1998, at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, in honor of the two hundredth volume produced by theDictionary of Literary Biography. A less discursive version appeared inThe New York Review of Books, January 21, 1999.) There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good. –F. Scott Fitzgerald, in his notebooks Poets don’t have biographies. Their work is their biography. –Octavio Paz, “A Note to Himself” The main question concerning literary biography is, surely, Why do we need it at all? When an author has devoted his life to expressing himself, and, if a poet or a writer of fiction, has used the sensations and critical events of his life as his basic material, what of significance can a biographer add to the record? Most writers lead quiet lives or, even if they don’t, are of interest to us because of the words they set down in what had to have been quiet moments. Regardless of what fascinated his contemporaries, Byron interests us now because ofDon Juanand those other poems that still sing, and, secondarily, because of his dashing, spirited letters. His physical beauty, his poignant limp, the scandalous collapse of his marriage and his flight from England as a social outcast, his picturesque European dissipations, his generous involvement in the cause of Greek independence, and his tragically youthful death at Missolonghi in 1824–all this sensational stuff would be buried in the mustiest archives of history did not Byron’s literary achievement distinguish him from the scores of similarly vexed and dynamic men of this turbulent Romantic era. By his words he still lives, and they give the impetus to the periodic biographies of which last year’s, by Phyllis Grosskurth, will soon be followed, next year, by Benita Eisler’s. I am not an especial devotee of literary biography. Indeed, I have my reasons to distrust it. Yet, looking back, I see that I have reviewed a fair amount of it, and, in addition, have read an amount on my own initiative, to satisfy my own curiosity. Although one rarely sees literary biography on the best-seller list, a prodigious amount of it is produced, some of it at prodigious length. The estimable British biographer Michael Holroyd topped his two-volume biography of Lytton Strachey with a three-volume biography of George Bernard Shaw. Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James took twenty-one years in the writing and occupies five volumes, of which the last is the bulkiest. In my barn I keep those books which, arriving free at the house, I deem too precious and potentially useful to give to the local church fair, and yet not so valuable as to win space on the packed shelves within my book-burdened domicile. Venturing out to my slapdash barn shelves, I note works of roughly five hundred pages on Edmund Wilson, Simone Weil, and Joyce Cary; six-hundred-page tomes on Oscar Wilde and Ivy Compton-Burnett; six hundred and fifty pages on Norman Mailer; seven hundred each on Jean Genet and Samuel Beckett; an eight- hundred-page work on Zola; and, the heavyweight champion in this vicinity, twelve hundred pages on the not notably prolific James Thurber. Length of life bears some relation to length of book; in the department of doomed poets, Sylvia Plath, dead at thirty, received three hundred fifty pages of attention, whereas Anne Sexton, who lived to be forty-six, one hundred more. However, Delmore Schwartz had the fifty-three years of his life compressed into a mere four hundred pages, as did the drink-raddled but surprisingly long-lived Dorothy Parker. And these are just the tenants in my barn. My opening question–Why do w