J.U. and I

J.U. and I

Reading all the eulogies of John Updike, I can't help but feel that an essential point has been missed. Not only was he "courtly" and kind, but he was one of the few writers of our age who didn't see writing as an aggressive act that needed to be met with another aggressive act: criticism.

I have on my desk I card he wrote me back in '04 when I condoled him for one of Michiko Kakutani's many gratuitous attacks on his writing. He told me that my kindness was "unusual." But why? I have always felt that making art is a generous act--not unlike making a party or feeding one's friends. The fact that so many seem to see it as aggression to be met with aggression astounds me. The writer or painter or composer is a giver of gifts. Just as we don't attack our friends for getting the colors or sizes wrong but honor the impulse to give, we have no reason to attack the artist. The only reason I can see is envy.

The writer may not have written the book we would have written, but after all, we still can. Art begets art. Writing inspires writing. Gifts beget gifts. Creativity is a kind of potlatch. The anger that greets the artist can perhaps only be explained by the misery of self-denial: I can't write so therefore you can't write either.

I wanted to cheer John Updike up after an attack because I was grateful that he continued to inspire me. I could not have written his books, but they stirred me to write my own. I was grateful for the gift of creativity passed along.

When he wrote his famous review of FEAR OF FLYING (collected in PICKED UP PIECES), I was amazed and delighted. Not only was his review readable and amusing, but though not without quibbles, it was sunny. I had by then read so many niggling attacks on my supposed love of pornography (which I hate), that I was cheered by his sunny assumption that sexuality was merely human. He also assumed that women were just as human as men. Later, he was attacked for his affable approach by curmudgeonly, bitter Alfred Kazin who implied that Updike was merely making a pass. Many writers do this, but John Updike was not one of them. Actually it was Kazin who was the flirtatious misogynist, not Updike.

John Updike strove mightily to understand, rather than dismiss, feminism--unlike Alfred Kazin, Paul Theroux, Martin Amis and all the little criticules (many female as well as male) who followed in their tortured footsteps.

I can think of no writer who was as open to difference as John Updike. He wanted to understand women and in many of his books he achieved this near-impossibility. If we compare him to Bellow or Roth or Mailer, we see how very open-minded he was.

Daphne Merkin calls him a miniaturist. I disagree. I think he embraced our world with he most open of arms. He certainly inspired my attempt to be a generalist, a person of letters rather than a specialist.

I suspect his books will be read in times to come. He gives us the texture of life in our century--just as Dickens does for the nineteenth century. We owe him thanks and blessings, not quibbles.