Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Updike of Our Time

An anonymous reader of this blog poses the following interesting questions in response to the Jeffrey Eugenides passage I quoted on Thursday:

OK, then. Let's ask the obvious if unanswerable questions: Who, if anyone, are the candidates to be the Updike of our time? Is there anyone in the rising generation of novelists or short story writers who is tapping a vein of experience common to those of us who are reaching middle age these days? Or is there, perhaps, no common vein of experience for this generation, no common trajectory to our post-collegiate lives? (Job, marriage, suburbia, boredom, adultery is a story people keep telling but with less and less relevance it would seem; hence, my lack of enthusiasm for Revolutionary Road despite my crush on Kate Winslet.) But then, was there ever, really, a common arc to our lives, or did it only look that way at a time when the American literary community was a pretty exclusive club? My parents didn't have Updike novels on the nightstand when I was growing up.

We had no Updike in our house when I was growing up, either. Eugenides perhaps overstates his case a bit. But I do think that he's on to something: the Baby Boom did constitute an unusually large and homogeneous cohort of people, and the portion of that cohort that reads literary fiction is, as a consequence, also unusually large, at least in relative terms. It was that group that became Updike's audience, making it profitable for him to publish more than a book a year for fifty years. That's at least how I understand Eugenides's point.

Could there be such an audience and such a writer for the next generation? My sense is no. Partly because the audience for books has shrunk. Here's how Updike himself diagnosed the problem:

When I was a boy, the bestselling 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. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now. I don't feel that we have the merger of serious and pop -- it's gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they're less comfortable with the written word. They're less comfortable with novels. They don't have a backward frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony and allusions. It's sad. It's momentarily uphill, I would say.

And who's to blame? Well, everything's to blame. Moviesare to blame, for stealing a lot of the novel's thunder. Why read a novel when in two hours you can just go passively sit and be dazzled and amazed and terrified? Television is to blame, especially because it's come into the home. It's brought the fascination of the flickering image right into the house; like turning on a faucet, you can have it whenever you want. I was a movie addict, but you could only see so many movies in the course of a week. I still had a lot of time to read, and so did other people. But I think television would take all your day if you let it. Now we have these cultural developments on the Internet, and online, and the computer offering itself as a cultural tool, as a tool of distributing not just information but arts -- and who knows what inroads will be made there into the world of the book.

If I had to identify the writer who came closest to tapping the generational vein of experience after Updike's, I'd probably point to the late David Foster Wallace. The outpouring of grief on the Internet in the wake of Wallace's death suggests that his work held the same type of deep generational meaning that Updike's does. In this famous essay, DFW kills off Updike in an Oedipal fashion, essentially declaring that he and his generation have outlived their relevance. And just as, for Eugenides, Updike embodied the image of "writer," I think Wallace did the same for his generation, as exemplified by this gag from the Onion:

Wallace's work, particularly his fiction, is less accessible than Updike's. But who knows? His final story published in the New Yorker seemed to indicate that he was headed in a less obscure direction; and the release of Jon Krasinski's film version of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men might have brought him a wider audience. (Before his death, I was often startled to find only one or two of his books for sale even at Borders.) Wallace also supported himself (did he have to?) by teaching, something that Updike did only very briefly. Is it even possible for an Updike to make it as a full-time writer anymore?  

In more ways than one, Updike was an extraordinary figure. Though he was aided by demographics, perhaps, his verbal abilities were amazing and his work ethic astounding. In that sense, we may not see "another Updike" for generations, or ever. With Wallace gone before his time, is there anyone to take his place as a kind of generational writer, in tune with a certain zeitgeist and a certain significant slice of sophisticated readers? 

George Saunders? 

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