Monday, July 31, 2006

Fixed in facility: more on Updike's Terrorist

TEV draws my attention to Bryan Appleyard's astonishing tirade in favour of John Updike's Terrorist and against all the reviewers who trashed it. Well, all but one.

What's astonishing is that a prominent cultural commentator should foreground feet-stamping and generalisations rather than precise analysis. After quoting a few negative reviews, he snorts:
Updike is just too good for them. They can’t stand being constantly exposed to somebody who just writes so well.
What a strange accusation! Do the same critics have the same response to every writer who is similarly blessed? I know that one of them (Jonathan Raban) is a great fan of Saul Bellow's, whom Appleyard places in the same exalted category as Updike. So Appleyard's accusation doesn't explain his trashing. I'm sure other people know enough about the taste of the other critics to disprove it for each of them.

Really, it's a childish suggestion. He even wheels out the oldest chestnut, comparing the critical reception with the public's "enthusiasm". This, he suggests, is evidence that it is "a very good book". If sales were a mark of goodness, then it follows that every Harry Potter novel is infinitely greater than Terrorist. I'm sure Appleyard wouldn't agree to that.

"Public enthusiasm" is proves little anyway, as the act of buying a novel says only that the individual wants to buy it, not that they already believe it to be a good book. If anything, it points to extra-literary hype and/or a wish for a more nuanced approach to terror than one gets in the news. Unfortunately, reviewing is indifferent (or should be) to the extra-literary, and it is precisely the portrayal of the terrorist of which the reviewers are critical. Appleyard does then edge toward literary critique by complaining that the critics "want their terrorists to be explicable in the most banal terms" rather than in the "opacity" of Updike's characterisation. But in not mentioning James Wood's brilliant dissection of Terrorist, Appleyard reveals that he cannot comprehend the real problem at hand is precisely Updike's mastery.

While the other critics express disbelief in the main character, Wood argues that "[i]t is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book." By enveloping the terrorist in his familarly seductive language, Updike obscures what makes the muslim terrorist such a mesmerising presence in our culture (contrasting him, I would add, to the pilot who obliterates dozens of muslims each week without becoming a focus of public fascination). As I wrote the other day, Updike would have had to frame his narrative differently for the novel to face that otherness. This has nothing to do with fine writing. It is finding the relation of literature to life; the real relation, not a quality of the suspension of disbelief.

The same problem is shared by Ian McEwan, the writer to whom Appleyard turns to back up his opinion. For all McEwan's and Updike's talent for quotable sentences - beautiful writing and all that - both writers resist the self-annihilating force of art. It's why their novels fail as art while succeeding in the stagnant pool of the popular literary novel. No wonder the booklovers are bewildered and offended when it is mentioned.

Appleyard's blind desparation causes him to score own goal after own goal: "Gore Vidal described Updike as being fixed in facility, as clear a case of the revenge of mediocrity on genius as I have ever heard." But in three words, Vidal provides the most succinct and accurate critique of Updike's fiction that anyone will ever hear. Were that other critics so mediocre!


  1. Anonymous2:13 pm

    "Gore Vidal described Updike as being *fixed in facility*"

    Reminds me of (I think) Kenneth Tynan's criticism of Peter O'Toole: "too relaxed in his own talent".

  2. Read the piece more carefully. I did not say anything about sales being a guarantee of quality.

  3. I didn't say you did. It's suggested.

    "Why the critical whining and the public enthusiasm? Well, to repeat, it is a very good book."

    Seems pretty fair to say that.

  4. Desperately low grade stuff, Steve. Anything can be suggested to someone who wants to see it. The public response is significant in the case of this particular book. And, inicdentally, what is that Beckett piece to which you refer?

  5. The public response is significant but it doesn't reflect on the quality of the novel *as a novel*, which was what you very clearly implied.

    It's interesting that you focus on a minor aside like that rather than the larger one.

    THe Beckett article was in the Sunday Times (I think) in the early 90s. It wasn't the usual philistine misrepresentation and marginalisation of Beckett that one gets in the papers. His novels still don't sell very well; he had a terror-wrist.



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