Updike was a kinder, gentler reviewer, even when he wasn’t

Yesterday, on John Updike’s 89th birthday, Literary Hub published an article by Walker Caplan that noted how Updike, “with one notable exception, was an incredibly kind reviewer.” Those familiar with Updike’s work are probably wondering which one that might be: his review of Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, or Toni Morrison? Okay, so there’s more than one. The fact remains, Updike was an incredibly generous reviewer who first and foremost refused to criticize a writer for not writing the kind of book that the reader or reviewer might have preferred. Updike was so devoted to the idea of writers reviewing writers that he set forth his now-famous list of rules for reviewing books.

Caplan includes a handful of criticisms that range from an “it could be me” response—”The elder Trellis [from Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds] is kept immobilized in his bed by surreptitiously drug-induced sleep while his characters, including a number of American cowboys recruited from the novels of one William Tracy, run wild. At least, that’s what I think is happening.”—to the blunt: “Ray Finch, the hero of Norman Rush’s lengthy new novel, Mortals, finds many things annoying. . . . Iris and Ray have been married for seventeen years, and she gives signs of having the seventeen-year itch. This is less surprising to the reader than to Ray, who is perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.”


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