John Updike’s Gated Community

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.

8 Responses

  1. Rabbit no moreI just invested
    Rabbit no more

    I just invested a lot of time and energy in reading Updike’s “Rabbit” series of books as well as a fair number of his short stories. I, too view Mr. Updike as one of the most accomplished American writers alive today. I am somewhat perplexed by his disillusionment, but I am not going to allow it to bother me to badly because I know it not to be true. Though publishing forms may evolve over time, I think the power of the written word will not wane until mankind ceases to exist.

  2. Ever the optimistAs I may
    Ever the optimist

    As I may have mentioned (more than once), I consider Updike an abysmal hack; Bech and Rabbit seem to have been written by another, far better writer.

    That said, I think the Shickshinny fraud is right on target. Publishing, like most of the arts, is in serious decline. The future of good books may lie only in marginal, independent publishers who do it for the love of literature. The conglomerates who own mainline publishing will peddle one hundred percent popular junk, because it is what sells.

    This has happened to art and music already. In my view it is due lack of demand for quality; the bozos pony up for Hannah Montana and Danielle Steel and Jeff Koons; Cy Twombly, Yo Yo Ma, and Italo Calvino (there are no living first-rate writers) enjoy a small rabid following, mostly in the cities. My friends in publishing and classical music tell me this remaining audience is gray and wobbly and disappearing fast.

  3. my coworkersIn the office
    my coworkers

    In the office building where I work, lots of people, young and old, read books during breaks and lunch.

    Just not my book.

  4. Bill, what books are your
    Bill, what books are your co-workers reading? What I usually see is people reading, but it’s mostly romance, chick-lit, stephen king types of things.

    Here in Boston you definitely do see a larger percentage of people on the subway reading good books, but Boston and New York are very different from most of the country: in my usual subway ride I pass Tufts, Harvard, and MIT in the space of a few stops, so this sample is clearly skewed towards the good stuff. And New York is the same, except more so.

  5. Dan, I travel all over Paris
    Dan, I travel all over Paris on the metro and there are definately more readers here than in the US except maybe New York. What do they read? All kinds of stuff. Heavy French stuff, light French stuff, an appalling amount of Danielle Steele translated into French. A lot of people are struggling with books in English, although they are French. A like number of English speakers are likewise struggling. But the amount of reading that goes on here is really encouraging, whereas in my native Chicago when I ride the El it is mostly people listening to rap music on their headphones, or sleeping.

    But here is a good thing. I stopped into the W.H. Smith book shop today, which is one of the biggest mainstream English retail bookstores in Paris, and people were buying books in handfuls! And they were buying good stuff – I saw one lady with a Pahlaniuk title and a J.M. Coetzee tucked under her arm. And – they were all buying paperbacks! Note – some paperbacks are in the $25 range here, but still.

    Of course I went up to the front desk and demanded if they had either Space Savers and Other Stories or Time Adjusters. The woman at the desk, who was French, said “I have nayvare heerd of zees Beell Eelectric”.

    So there you have it, the book business is still alive and well over here, though the lack of Ectric titles is puzzling to me.

  6. The Golden AgeI couldn’t
    The Golden Age

    I couldn’t agree more. Unbeknownst to Mr. Updike, we are living in the golden age of literature. Never before in the histoire de man has the written word so thoroughly pervaded every aspect of our lives. The internet, a thousand channels of tv, a thousand radio stations at the touch of our fingers, and all of these deriving from literature their composition – all of our social mores and ethic deriving from literature. The question before us is – now that we have it, what do we do with it?

    Litkicks, 3:AM, The Litblog Co-op, indie presses, should be about shaping the world. That is what Ferlinghetti had in mind (and apparently Updike doesn’t).

  7. I’ve read Bill Ectric’s books
    I’ve read Bill Ectric’s books and I’ll venture to say that ‘The Little Robot’ will end up in text books as one of the best short stories of all time. That’s not pandering or anything, just my honest assessment.

  8. You’re absolutely right that
    You’re absolutely right that popular junk sells, but you can’t blame the publishers for the decline of writing as an art. They need to make money to stay in business, so they are simply responding to market forces. If the masses had better taste in literature, that’s what they’d publish.

    I’m also not convinced that “independent” is a signifier of better quality than “conglomerate.” Although the indies may not be publishing formulaic thrillers, there’s plenty of crap out there masquerading as belles lettres. And we shouldn’t kid ourselves into believing that they are all on a higher mission. If a barely scratching by indie could land themselves a mega-seller, many of them would jump at it. (Take Beaufort Books, for example.)

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