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R.I.P John Updike

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The great writer John Updike has died at the age of 76. I say writer, because Updike was more than a novelist. He was a storyteller, an essayist, a man of letters in a way that is rare in our current age. With Updike’s passing we have one less literary great who was widely known by the public. We have precious few of those.

Without the intention to belittle such writers as Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, Patricia Cornwell or other bestselling authors, Updike was a rarity in that he became famous writing not just popular fiction but difficult, literary fiction. He presented us works meant to do more than provide an enjoyable diversion. He wanted his readers to think about our life and our world, to consider the implications of our choices and the meanings behind our relationships. He wasn’t always great, but he always tried to do more than simply write an entertaining story.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing distasteful about entertaining stories. I am egalitarian in my views of fiction — the more, the merrier. I’d rather see my kids reading comic books than reading nothing at all. But I have great affection for literature and what it adds to our culture. Like all the arts, the best literature can change minds and hearts. Updike undoubtedly changed a few.

He will be missed. I can only hope his passing does not portend the end to an age when literary writers can become, if not household names, then widely known and appreciated. Many other writers deserve the recognition Updike enjoyed.

  • ExiledIndependent

    Sad to see such a great talent pass. And in the defense of Mr. King, he’s won several literary awards and has acted as editor on several very serious literary efforts.

  • kranky kritter

    I know Updike at least as much for his essays. A giant for sure, even if I couldn’t get through one of his Rabbit books recently, as it seemed quite dated.

    You bring up a question of great interest to me. What literature/books/fictional art of the current generation will stand the test of time? There’s a traditional schism between literature and pop fiction, and generally the snobbish academy looks askance at popular success. But the greatest artists transcend this schism and manage to do both.

    Will the academy of critics and college professors be able to preserve their status as gatekeepers of the alleged canon into this century, or will this deteriorate more and more? As one with a BA in English and and MA in critical thinking, I wonder. Working in publishing, I’ve often encountered works that recieve academy approval yet are just dreadfully precious, pretentious stuff that fails to transcend concept and exercise and provide genuine artful insight. My opinionis that audience matters. It must. The most important insight of any art lacks utility if that insight can not be communicated well enough for more than a handful to grasp.

    With the now common transition of entertaining fiction writing into film, I think it’s likely that someone like Stephen King is going to stand some sort of test of time, even if the future members of the snob academy relegate him to 2nd tier status for working in both pop and in horror, as with Poe.

  • Latecomer

    The age old debate of literary versus popular.

    We need to correct the misconception that ‘literary’ always implies ‘intelligent/serious’, while ‘popular’ is a synonym for ‘shallow/dumb’.

    It is imperative that artist speak the language of the age in which they live, regardless of the message they convey through their works. It is very possible to construct a ‘literary’ work in a contemporary way. The scholar Thomas Cahill has demonstrated this in a very fluent way with his “Hinges of History” series, which deals with ancient historical facts and issues, but which anyone can pick up and read.

    In the end knowledge must be made accessible (‘popular’) to the wider populace if it’s going to have any meaningful impact on society.

    By the way, Stephen King’s “The Stand” is an all-time classic by any standards…at least in my dictionary.

  • http://www.coffeerama.com coffee

    John Updike’s passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. “Immortality is nontransferrable” he said appropriately.

  • http://www.mispersonality.com Katie

    I was inspired by this article. Less than a week before he died, I was randomly thinking about his poem ‘January’ and remembering when I was in 8th grade English class and chose to memorize it for fun.