Saturday, June 17, 2006

Updike: Blogs not a part of "real society"

Today's Rocky Mountain News features a reverential interview with John Updike by books editor Patti Thorn. She spoke with him a month ago at BookExpo, a few hours after he had given an "impassioned speech, lamenting another recent Times article predicting the demise of books as Internet technology takes over."

Updike had this to say about Internet culture, which he admits to not understanding:

"You type in your blog, and some other people read it, and so you create a print society apart from real society and you're getting the gratification of expressing yourself . . . It's a way to develop a public persona, but it's very undiscriminating, and very 'me-minded.' We're all me-minded. We all have egos."

But writers in the past, such as Upton Sinclair, went beyond ego to serve a greater good, he says. "They were trying to improve the world . . . I get a feeling this electronic stuff is all kind of a game, another form of a video game."

I think similar things could have been said about 18th century pamphlet and broadside writers (except for the bit about video games; which, incidentally, I don't play). They created a print society apart from that of their compatriots, the vast majority of whom were illiterate. Yes, there's a lot of "me" in this blog and many others, but I hope that in some way we're all serving the greater good. I sure would like to improve the world, too, though I think it's the height of arrogance to even imply that my writing will do the trick.

How interesting that Updike decries the current generation of writers for not being like Upton Sinclair, when he sure as hell isn't either. Sinclair was an ardent Socialist whose books reflected his politics, and who thrice ran for office in spectacularly unsuccessful fashion.

Thorn writes that Updike's new novel, Terrorist:

... was born the day he attended a child's birthday party in an apartment in Brooklyn Heights. From the window, featuring an expansive view of downtown Manhattan, he saw smoke billowing from the Twin Towers. ..

"Suddenly, the thing went down and we heard it. There was a kind of tinkling, a delicate sound, almost like wind chimes. I suppose it was all the glass shattering. Then, whooomp and dust covering the towers, and the whole island of Manhattan was wailing with sirens."

Very affecting, but who has a kid's birthday party from 8:30-10:30 on a Tuesday morning in September? Something's out of kilter here.

UPDATE 6/19: Per Galleycat, which did the Proper Journalistic Thing and checked with Knopf:

Updike did in fact go to Brooklyn for a child's birthday party, and though it wasn't on the morning of 9/11, he was still in the city, and that's when he saw what he saw...

Let this be a lesson on the importance of clear writing and good editing.


Debra Hamel said...

That's an excellent point! I wonder if anyone else will notice it.

Joan Kelly said...

Thanks for posting about this, Bella.

And for Updike to dismiss blogging as akin to people playing video games, for Christ's sake - it happens to be a medium where many more people are able to have their writing read than in the traditional publishing world. A world that Updike already has privileged access to, himself.

(Yes I did start my own blog recently, but I would have been annoyed by his remarks even before that, just from knowing you and Kassia, etc. and your blogs.)

kitty said...

who has a kid's birthday party from 8:30-10:30 on a Tuesday morning

That was my exact same question when I read it, too!

MJ said...

Very odd. The whole thing was odd.

Anonymous said...

He didn't say anything about a child's birthday party when he talked a little about 9/11/01 at the NYPL last Thursday.

hip_ragdoll said...

That's such a good observation. I didn't notice that at all when I read the book (ie, it didn't register). Kind of ironic that Updike is railing against blogs and the internet (especially in that BEA speech) considering they're the main ways "word of mouth" about this book is getting around considering he does very little press (although gets major review attention).

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Richard said...

Sorry about that, I tried to link to this blog post about Updike:

which contains a dialogue that starts:

look at his face

Noah: he is ugly
we are more attractive than him

me: he's an ass

Noah: he looks like dog fucker

me: lets have a gmail chat about updike's face

Richard said...

Anyway, maybe Updike saw that, as he might if he ego-surfs on Technorati or Google Blog Search.

That would make me skeptical of literary blogs, too.


If you read between the lines Updike is struggling with the notion that writers like him won't exist in the near future, that the way of life he knows is vanishing.