1. Fans of Updike-If you are already a fan of the man's works you would be inclined to view a list like this because you either want a) your opinions on the author and his works validated or b) you want to read more Updike and don't know where to find it. These people really don't need a list like this.
2. Literary Critics-This subset is responsible for book lists. They spend time compiling lists like these and reading lists by other critics. For them there is relatively little skin in the game. Right or wrong these lists don't affect them.
3. People Who Only Read What's Popular In That Moment (AKA Jonathan Franzen's entire fanbase)- These people don't have any real interest in fiction or authors. They lack the necessary skills to discern good literature from bad. These are the people who buy novels because Oprah tells them to; they are also the people who consider Fifty Shades of Grey to be a quality novel because it was popular and contained graphic sex, never realizing that the books were sensational and smut. I have little time for people like these because they don't really read fiction nor do they really understand what goes into a novel to make it work. They see an Oprah sticker or Franzen on the cover of Time with the headline "Next Great American Author" and buy his garbage without a second thought.
Basically I don't like these lists because of what they leave in (popular works and big name authors regardless of content) and what they leave out (novels by lesser known authors that have put something real into their novels). I will now give you the entire list and my comments on each selection.
1. The Rabbit Books- Not only picking one of the tetrology, they decide to include all of the stories. I would have separated them out because I feel that Rabbit is Rich is the best of the four. Rabbit Redux is the weakest and Rabbit at Rest and Rabbit, Run fall somewhere in the middle. I think it is fitting that these books come first on the list, they are the books that not only made Updike famous but they are also the first Updike I read and loved.
2. The Early Stories 1953-1975- Now, I have not read much of Updike's short stories but those that I have are excellent with A&P being by far my favorite. Maybe ranked a little high but by writing for the New Yorker Updike gained influence, a voice and an audience. His short stories are bright and use their sparse words well providing description in a small space.
3. The Centaur- This won Updike the National Book Award and is one that I have not read, so I won't comment further. If it's good enough for the critics then it's good enough for me.
4. Couples- Excellent novel and the one that sparked the sexual revolution in America. Ranked fourth is well enough because it is not as widely known as his later works but it is influential for many reasons. Basically know this: if Couples describes the Revolution, then Rabbit is the aftermath.
5. Bech- Widely read and known trilogy of stories about a Jewish novelist, Updike really was at the height of his powers in the 1970's and this work reflects that. However, at least one working critic (and oddly enough it is my mentor D.G. Myers) argues that Bech doesn't work because Updike isn't Jewish and can't accurately describe the lives of contemporaries like Malamud, Bellow and Roth. I think this book is too high on the list not because of notoriety but because it just didn't fit.
6. Picked Up Pieces- Updike's first work of literary criticism and the first work that proved he can not only write his own works but discern in other's writing what is good and what isn't. I was working on this one this week and will write about it further down in the post.
7. Hugging the Shore- I know nothing about this work and frankly didn't know that it existed. A shame too, because I wish that I could go further but my time is limited within the semester format.
8. Witches of Eastwick- Lame.
9. Roger's Version- Once again not a book that I know well. Whoever compiled this list did well. Maybe my above comments are incorrect, these lists serve some purpose.
10. Just Looking: Essays on Art- AHA! Here is the art book. Of the three secret things, Updike covers all but this in the novels we have covered. Clearly we needed to do our homework next time and consider more works outside of the mainstream. After all, Updike wrote for over fifty years so naturally some works might fall between the cracks.
So, overall this list is incomplete to me because I haven't covered all of them. But further it means that Updike was noteworthy enough to warrant a list of his own.
As far as Picked Up Pieces is concerned, to understand Updike's criticism you have to first look at his "rules for criticism." There are five of them and they go as follows:
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants’ revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
Basically the main thrust of these rules is technical in nature and asks the reviewer to limit the scope of the criticism to everything that the author intended. Pieces does this almost to a fault. In fact, this work of criticism is sometimes too nice and gives authors too much credit. I think this speaks to Updike being new at criticism and perhaps not wanting to step on too many toes. But he does follow his rules and consider the realizations of criticism that everything is on the table and most importantly, after recognizing the boundaries that the author created, everything is fair game.
Picked Up Pieces is the first try of a man to enter the world of criticism and I give Updike much credit for crossing the boundary into "the other side" from author to critic. It's tough for me to read but somewhat makes sense. Updike proves that he is America's man of words with this and his other criticism because he successfully expands his career into writing all sorts of genres.
Professor Myers is a working critic and he responds to me that Updike laid out some sort of scientific process for judging books. That by leveling the field one can critique each book based on its own merit. He cautioned me to read everything with a sharp eye and realize that there is a void between the author, the work and the critic. Much like Bernie Taupin and Elton John in their early days together as singer and songwriter the author and critic don't converse when they are working. Updike is better than most at bridging the gap by considering the author's point of view and writing to educate the audience and not be overly harsh to the original writer. I enjoyed Picked Up Pieces and look forward to the end of our course with Due Considerations in a couple of weeks.