Sample text for More matter : essays and criticism / John Updike.
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"More matter, with less art," Queen Gertrude advises Polonius; she sounds like a modern magazine editor. The appetite in the print trade is presently for real stuff -- the dirt, the poop, the nitty-gritty -- and not for the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction. A writer is almost never asked to write a story, let alone a poem; instead he or she is invited to pen introductions, reviews, and personal essays, preferably indiscreet. (Pen them, then fax them. Instant modemed communication and rapidly overlapping semes are à la mode.) Human curiosity, the abettor and stimulant of the fiction surge between Robinson Crusoe's adventures and Constance Chatterley's, has become ever more literal-minded and impatient with the proxies of the imagination. Present taste runs to the down-home divulgences of the talk show -- psychotherapeutic confession turned into public circus -- and to investigative journalism that, like so many heat-seeking missiles, seeks out the intimate truths, the very genitalia, of Presidents and princesses. It is as if, here at the end of a millennium, time is too precious to waste on anything but such central, perennially urgent data. And so it has come to pass that, in the 1990s, as I turned sixty and then reached sixty-two (senior discount at the movies!) and then passed retirement age, instead of devoting myself wholly to the elaboration of a few final theorems and dreams couched in the gauzy genres of make-believe, I have cranked out, in response to many a plausible request, the mass of more or less factual matter, of assorted prose, which Knopf has herewith heroically, indulgently printed and bound, my fifth such collection and -- dare we hope? -- my last.
In this terminal decade the editor of my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, became Tina Brown. It has been my bewildering professional experience to see the editors of that revered journal go from being much older, wiser heads, gray and authoritative, with a shamanistic mystique, to being all -- with the friendly exception of Roger Angell -- much younger than I, young enough in most cases to be my sons and daughters, with an adult child's willful and mysterious fondness for loud music, late nights, unheard-of celebrities, and electronic innovation. However, Ms. Brown's demeanor toward me, during her tenure, was engagingly benign, and I tried, albeit somewhat arthritically, to dance to her tune -- contributing, for instance, to the back-page "Shouts and Murmurs" which she revived from the days of Alexander Woollcott, and answering her call to write about Lana Turner and Gene Kelly, whose videos I was nostalgically happy to view. The magazine's books department passed, through a flurry of interim managers, from the relaxed custody of the late, gravel-voiced Edith Oliver to the more scholastic, tremulously sensitive care of Henry Finder. The kind of books, mostly fiction from Europe and other exotic realms, that I used to be assigned for review yielded to meatier fare, like biographies of such imposing figures as Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth II, and (my last assignment before Ms. Brown's abrupt departure for even greener pastures) Helen Keller. These august subjects subtended areas of knowledge shadowy to me, but the late William Shawn -- whose blessed memory has itself recently undergone some biographical elaboration -- made it a principle not to assign books to specialists in the field, so I was already habituated, as a reviewer, to being at sea and steering by starlight. Also, on their own intellectual initiative, the new editors composed, in the hope that I might become a Critic at Large, a few bouquets of related titles for me to admire and address; in this volume's section "Medleys," the first two conjunctions were my idea, and the next two theirs. Presciently, they had me tackle the Titanic a year before the movie swept all before it. Another ambitious assignment, on Edith Wharton and her cinematic spinoffs, took me uneasily into territory already thoroughly patrolled by Anthony Lane. He and I bumped heads in the dark of a midtown screening room and I beat a quick retreat.
Though The New Yorker has always been scrupulously, tirelessly edited, requests to write to a certain specified length and on a certain timely topic much less obtruded upon a writer's consciousness in the days when William Shawn sustained the editorial illusion of a full and ghostly freedom. Reviews were allowed to run until the reviewer felt depleted; now one aims at a shorter length of nine hundred words or a much longer of around three thousand. Snappy or expansive, take your pick. My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment. In a strange way, the passing of the Cold War has made it harder to frame a literary opinion; the polarities of right versus left and red versus free lent a tension to aesthetic questions miles removed from the Manichaean global struggle. Fiction from the Communist world was inevitably considered from a political angle, but that of Europe and the Americas also crackled with miniature versions of the global clash, the debate, carried on country by country, between Marx and Adam Smith on how one should live. Economic realities, in the form of declining ad revenues, had at last overtaken The New Yorker, which for so long seemed exempt from the crasser considerations. Her model for renovation, Tina Brown let it be known, was the magazine edited by Harold Ross -- a peppier, saucier, and succincter publication that proclaimed itself not for the old lady from Dubuque. The old lady from Dubuque had become, over the years, one of the faithful subscribers, and then she got doddery. That a doddery contributor like myself might still have a part to play in the redesigned, more sharply angled pages was a comforting thought. I fell in love with the magazine as a child, from what seemed an immense distance. Appearing under the same Rea Irvin-designed title-type and department logos as White and Thurber and Cheever and those magical cartoons was for me a dream come true. It still is.
Let's face it, gentle reader: I set out to be a magazine writer, a wordsmith as the profession was understood in the industrial first half of the century, and I like seeing my name in what they used to call "hard type." The magazine rack at the corner drugstore beguiled me with its tough gloss. The academization and etherealization and latterly the devaluing deconstruction of the writer's trade in the second half of the century have taken me by surprise, though my Harvard education should have prepared me. Journalism has not only its social stimulations but its aesthetic virtues. An invitation into print, from however suspect a source, is an opportunity to make something beautiful, to discover within oneself a treasure that would otherwise have remained buried. When the call comes from beyond one's own language -- from a German, French, Brazilian, or Japanese publication -- the opportunity is to go back to basics, to write of one's own cultural context more bluntly than would be seemly at home, and to phrase an English that, in regard to the finished product, forms a preliminary stage. My two contributions to the Lufthansa Bordbuch (an elegant publication recently trimmed down) appeared in English and German both; otherwise, I explained the cold to Brazilians, my short stories to the Japanese, and my poems to the French with an agreeable sensation of hiding behind a foreign language, as when in my escapades as a cultural ambassador I spoke through a bilingual intermediary. Introducing works by other authors, especially those secure in the lists of immortality, offers the pleasure of another, pedagogic impersonation; the introductions to certain works of Melville, Wharton, and Henry Green gave me the quiet joys of a scholar as he adds his careful modicum to an extensive bibliography. The lecture on New York writing exploited the anthologies of others and marks another occasion when the rustle of mock-professorial robes cosseted my ears. "Religion and Literature" was actually a chapter in a textbook, The Religion Factor, published by a Presbyterian press; I took it upon myself, perhaps wickedly, to remind the presumed students of divinity that a once-healthy religion existed outside the Judaeo-Christian belief system and died, as it were, in literature's embrace. The itch to inform is perhaps as pernicious a goad to utterance as the itch to charm.
The invitations to inform or charm that come my way are limited by the meagre number of my areas of supposed expertise. Of golf I have had my say in Golf Dreams, though a foreword late to tee off offered itself for inclusion in More Matter. Suburban interrelations creep into discussions of dancing, suntanning, and the Fifties. Among living American authors, I take, it may be, an anomalously positive or at least hopeful view of our Republic's progress; hence I am occasionally trusted by the powers that be to expound on matters of state, as the reader can see in the first section. On the strength of my early cartooning ambitions, my single year at an English art school, and my willingness to feel happy in museums, Art and Antiques, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books have over the years let me write on art and exhibits. One book, Just Looking, has already been made of such articles; this present volume holds, in addition to commentary on movies and photographs, those art reviews which did not, it seemed to me, require color illustration, or illustration at all.
As in my other eight-years' gatherings, Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, and Odd Jobs, the last section rounds up snippets, some a mere paragraph, pertaining to me and my works. My excuses for this methodical narcissism are that all authorial activity is egoistic anyway and that close students of my work -- there are a few -- will be interested. In truth, so impenetrably loom the paper mountains of a diligent oeuvre, that interviewers rarely seem aware of my faithful deposits of opinion and autobiography. Again and again I am asked questions already patiently answered in print. Never mind; predator satiation being one of nature's survival techniques, I answer them again, and thus add a bit more superfluous self-description to what we might laughingly call "the record." Some repetition is inevitable, as part of the satiation. The inventory of my rather paltry childhood reading keeps coming round, and I fear the same Henry James quotation is invoked three times; in each case it seemed indispensable, and too choice to paraphrase.
A child begins to play at art in the faith that there is a treasure house where the most accomplished work is stored, to last forever, forever consulted. Intimations of the definitive tinged my creative excitement at its outset, around and under our family dining-room table, with its Tiffany lampshade of many glowing colors. There is a bliss in making sets of things, and in bringing something imperfect closer to perfection -- firmly inking in a sketchy drawing, adding a few more verbal enhancements to a final proof. Or, in a review, listing, say, the exotic words in Norman Rush's Mating and the savored meals in Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy. The assembly and arrangement of a book like More Matter offers such satisfactions -- the tactile thrill of the fixed, the interlocking -- but any illusion of "permanent form" struggles against the realizations, come upon me late in life, that paper decays, that readership dwindles, that a book is a kind of newspaper, that the most polished composition loses edge to the flow of language and cultural context, that no masterpiece will outlast the human race, that the race is but an incident in the fauna of our planet, that our planet is doomed to die in a hiccup of the sun, that the sun will eventually implode and explode, and that the universe itself is a transitory scribble on the surface, so oddly breached fifteen billion years ago, of nothingness. Wow! Zap! Nevertheless, the living must live, a writer must write. Enough said. So bulky a book warrants a brief preface.
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