Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tragic Refusal

I don't have a lot of love for John Updike, I admit. I haven't read all those rabbit books, and quite frankly, I get him mixed up with John Irving in my head (fortunately, I don't usually do this aloud). I see his name and I think of bland older white men in suburban America. I suppose that's not fair.

Well in a post on the Guardian's Books blog, writer Joe Keenan really puts this old fella in his place. Keenan fairly uses Updike's famous address at Book Expo in 2006 to explain why Updike is falling behind, not in his writing style per se but in his effort to depict life as most of us currently know it. In that address, Updike complained bitterly about the digitizing of books, about the supposed end of books as we know it. I agree with him on the importance of books as "the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other's steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness." But it's clear he's resisting an inevitable change too much, and while I'm all for exalting independent booksellers at every and any opportunity, you are doing them no favors by praising them for refusing to roll with these changes. I don't like the market anymore than you do, but it's still a massive force that can crush you - you, but at this point, not Updike.

So Keenan and Updike's new novel, The Widows of Eastick: Apparently, in this novel,
"the characters inhabit a world that has disappeared. When they are not gossiping on land line telephones, the three widows write long information-strewn letters to each other which they despatch via the mail... Sukie, one of the main characters, is dismayed to find upon returning to Eastwick that the rather smart local newspaper she helped produce has been closed down and replace by a cheap Xeroxed sheet. Xerox? Even the smallest hamlets now have their dedicated websites..."

Yikes. In sum, Keenan reports: "His withdrawal from the hurly-burly of contemporary communication may be one reason why his novels have become less despatches from the frontline than cosy remembrances of things past."

This presents for me a question I have often considered when watching movies or reading modern novels, or I should say novels set in the present. How can one produce a work of gravitas but still incorporate our current, incredibly casual modes of communication? Will something weighty and significant be created using snippets of text messages? If you saw such a thing in flipping through the pages of a novel, would you not think it was YA or at least very commercial? I would be concerned if I found an IM conversation in the middle of a new novel I thought looked promising, but then I actively IM people and have had very serious conversations using this form of communication.

How to use it effectively and maturely in art, then?

I don't have an answer, and I don't know if I've seen it done very well, so I appreciate Keenan raising this entirely fair critique. I'll have to continue looking out for examples of modern, casual conveniences in mature and artful literature... when I read it. (Which may not be for a long time, given the length of Strange Piece of Paradise!)

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