John Updike, who is probably my favorite writer alive in the world today, is on my shit list right now.
In a fascinating John Freeman interview for Critical Mass, Updike answers a question about the future of the novel with this depressing whopper:
“My feeling of the book business is it’s on the decline, but there is an irreducible number of people who still find benefits and pleasures in reading that they can get nowhere else, and it is nonetheless an art very worth practicing. I am so happy I’ve had a life lived in books.”
Hah. John Updike prefaces this with a disclaimer:
“I am speaking as an elderly man, keep-in-mind, but there is a sense of fatigue in the book review as a genre … the books keep coming, but why do they keep coming?”
I can assure the great novelist that, yes, he is speaking as an elderly man, and that in fact he is truly out of touch with reality. I know he has children and grandchildren, so I’m confused, because all I have to do to know that books are not in decline is watch my 13-year-old daughter, who spent last weekend buried in the McSweeney’s anthology Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things, which she likes about as much as she likes My Chemical Romance (which is to say, a lot). Before this, she was tearing through Chew On This, a popular expose of the fast food industry for young adults by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson, and lecturing me on my Taco Bell habit. She’s also recently enjoyed Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes and The Pigman by Paul Zindel, which apparently time hasn’t dimmed.
It’s a simple truth that today’s youngest generation is a generation of book freaks — yes, book freaks — just as much as my generation was, and your generation was, and even Mr. Updike’s undoubtedly greatest generation was. If the book business is in decline, it can only mean that the dummies who are running the business can’t figure out how to sell the stuff to the people who want it.
The book business is not on the decline. Let me say that again: the book business is not on the decline. There is a massive consumer demand for books, as there always has been. Digital publishing will not make books go away, and neither will the internet or even (“boo!”) literary blogs. People will continue to read and write and buy and love books. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that the books being published today, taken as a whole, are probably better than the books published at any other point in history (
even the 60’s, when Mr. Updike wrote his best novels), and that the books published ten years from now will be better than the books being published now.
Here’s the punch line of the whole thing. I’ve spent the last two months talking to many book industry professionals about book pricing and hardcover vs. paperback publishing. Invariably, the people I’ve spoken to who support the status quo in publishing — hardcover first, premium priced — are the ones who believe the business faces a future decline. This pessimistic belief supports the idea that premium pricing for books makes the most sense. It’s the “gated community” model of literature, as I wrote on this site a long time ago. It’s the belief that great literature is a shrinking island in an uncomprehending world.
That’s nonsense, my friends. It’s the worst kind of nonsense. John Updike should know better.
And, finally … here’s the second reason the novelist and critic I generally idolize is on my shit list right now. According to Freeman’s interview, Updike’s next book will be a sequel to his tepid The Witches of Eastwick called The Widows of Eastwick. This is not what I’m trying to hear.