Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism. By John Updike.

by John Boland

John Updike writes so beautifully that it’s tempting for a reviewer simply to quote him. Here he is on William Trevor: “His breadth of empathy, his deeply humane ruefulness, and his love for the sound of demotic English in all its inflections of class and geography give his short stories the timbre of novels.” And here he is on New Yorker editor William Shawn: “He remains, for me, a model of acumen and kindness, with something truly otherwordly in his dedication to exalted, disinterested standards within the easily sullied, and increasingly crass, world of the printed word.”

This gift for beautiful prose often seems inextricably linked with his gift for praise, as in his tribute to his own particular New Yorker editor, William Maxwell: “He was himself so large-minded, so selflessly in love with the best the world could offer, that he enlarged and relaxed all those who knew him.” Or in his homage to Hemingway: “He gave those of us who would write in this century lessons in dialogue, in blunt and elliptical verity, in gallows humour, in risk as a kind of corporeal poetry, in the pencil-wielder’s daily patience. Even those of us who may seem to have slept through all his lessons write better because of him, and think better of our craft and vocation.”

His inclination to blame isn’t so marked and the moments in this 700-page collection when he takes writers to task for failures of ambition or achievement are rare and are chiefly in the section on contemporary American fiction, about which, he acknowledges, he sometimes indulges in “testy quibbling.” But he also concedes that most of the reviews are notable for their “customary geniality, almost effusive in the presence of a foreign writer or a factual topic.”

But effusiveness is not what we most desire in a critic and too much of this book – his seventh assemblage of non-fiction in forty years – is taken up Updike’s “courteous geniality,” which, no matter how delicately honed the prose, becomes a little wearying – especially when it’s presented in the form of tossed-off tributes to mark the occasion of Tina Brown’s departure from the New Yorker or publisher Andre Deutsch’s memorial service or of replies to queries from American colleges or other institutions. This is well-meaning journeyman work and doesn’t merit being preserved between hard covers.

But then this is a man for whom, over a period of fifty years, writing has become indistinguishable from breathing. With 22 novels, more than a dozen short story collections, eight poetry collections, six children’s books, memoirs and other volumes of cultural and social criticism to his name, Updike has long been the most prolific major writer in America. The guy just can’t say no, though some of us – while never denying his talent or his elegantly expressed and urbane insights – might wish he’d slow down a little.

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