John Updike’s death yesterday has spawned numerous tributes bemoaning the void he leaves on the literary landscape. I will not add to those, save to note that what I think we are all really mourning is a kind of literary life, of which Updike may have been the last great practitioner. There used to be a time in American letters (or so it seems in retrospect) when a writer could flow easily between novels, short story collections, nonfiction books, and magazine articles. Or maybe only Updike himself could manage that juggling act. For the past half century, Updike’s prodigious output included roughly a book a year and articles and short stories for many magazines, including 800 bylines in the New Yorker. While he’ll be best remembered for his novels of suburban ennui and adultery, he stretched easily to other topics, from baseball to fine art, from witchcraft to third-world politics.
Along the way, he attracted criticism (some deserved) that he had no business, as a WASPy Harvard alumnus, to appropriate the narratives of characters from backgrounds distant from his own. His imagination may occasionally have failed him, but as an artist, he certainly had the right to try. Literature is about empathy, and like Terence, Updike found nothing human was alien to him.
Updike saw himself as a working scribe, taking on book or art reviews because he knew they’d be more likely to pay than short stories written on spec. Still, every new Updike tome was treated like an event by the literati and the East Coast tastemakers who edit magazines. He was one of the last of his kind, that generation of writers who ruled the newsstands as well as the bookshelves, landing any assignment they pleased and taking on any topic. Of that generation (Updike, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and Tom Wolfe come to mind), only Roth and Wolfe are left, and they’ve abandoned the magazine salon — or perhaps it has abandoned them. The only writer in my generation who came close in sweep and ambition was probably David Foster Wallace, who left us last year. So let us mourn Updike, but let’s also mourn a world where the literary imagination mattered enough to give words on a page — the smell of ink on glossy, smooth magazine paper, not just pixels on a screen — a palpable sense of romance.