John Updike has died.
I've been trying to imagine a world without Updike. I can't. On the other hand, I'll never have to. He left enough of himself behind to keep me busy for the rest of my life.
Some years ago Updike spoke at My School. It horrified me and my friends that only a few hundred showed up for the talk. Yet it's also somewhat unsurprising. What passes for bestselling fiction these days is largely (but no, not entirely) a watered-down libation, an offering that panders to the lowest common reading denominator. (One and two on the Amazon top 100 at this moment: John Grisham, the writer I love to hate; and Stephenie Meyer. Any more questions?) According to CNN, Updike addressed this himself:
Though [his] work routinely sold well, he was painfully aware of the decline of what's come to be called "literary fiction." In a 2000 interview with Salon, he lamented its difficulties.I read most of the Rabbit books, and to this day the scene in (I believe) the first, in which a drunken Janice unintentionally drowns the baby haunts me more than perhaps anything else I've ever read. Yet if some cruel literary gatekeeper tried to take all the Updike in the world away from me but one thing, I'd choose to keep his 1997 short story "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace," a barely-masked tribute to his own father.
"When I was a boy, the best-selling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher's shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership," he said. "But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now."
Rest well, Mr. Updike.