John Updike hardly seems able to write a sentence, for any occasion, that doesn’t have a shapely, rhythmical balance to it, yet there is something shapeless and directionless about Hugging the Shore. Many collections of reviews seem scattered until the author’s aims become apparent, and in reading these literary reviews we do learn what Updike’s tastes and prejudices are. But I put the book down with a frustrated and almost angry feeling that I had been in the company of a brilliant person who is running on automatic.
Hugging the Shore is dissatisfying, but it is phenomenal, too. It has the heft of a Bible, and it has a Biblical diversity of subjects and insights. It is packed with phrases, sentences, or paragraphs that give us a handle on books and authors we haven’t read or heard of, or that bring back well-known books and authors in refreshed, new ways. “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is described as “an Oedipal triangle passingly invaded by a goldenhaired loser.” Randall Jarrell’s children’s books “have a sinister stir about them, the breath of true forlornness felt by children.” John Cheever’s “instinctive belief in the purity and glory of Creation brings with it an inevitable sensitivity to corruption; like Hawthorne, he is a poet of the poisoned.” About Maurice Blanchot’s novel Death Sentence: “It is as if Jesus Christ, years later, were writing, in the affectless voice of the hero of Camus’s Stranger, His own troubled, ‘indeterminate’ Gospel.”
Hugging the Shore includes humor pieces, sports and travel reporting, essays on such subjects as a small-town police force and New England churches, and, in an appendix, a sort of patchwork autobiography, composed of interviews, testimonies before panels, and introductions to books of his that have been reissued. The bulk of the collection, though, is a section, made up of nearly a hundred reviews, introductions, and essays prepared from talks, that Updike calls “Other People’s Books.” In these pieces, written over the past eight years, primarily for The New Yorker, he covers—to give a rough idea—classic nineteenth-century figures (Flaubert, Hawthorne), and twentieth-century authors, some established (Joyce, Auden, Hemingway, Edmund Wilson, Nabokov, Isak Dinesen), some only beginning to be better known (Henry Green, Bruno Schulz, Flann O’Brien). There are sections on Japanese, Indian, and African fiction writers and on travel writers and historians of Asia and Africa. He reviews experimental French novelists (Raymond Queneau, Robert Pinget), new German and Eastern European fiction (Peter Handke, Milan Kundera), and contemporary British and American novelists (Kingsley Amis, Don DeLillo, Christina Stead, Ann Beattie). And there are pieces here on European and American essayists, sociologists, memoirists, historians, scientists, theologians, and anthologists of folk and fairy tales—reviews of James Boswell, Isaiah Berlin, M.F.K. Fisher, Carl Sagan, E.B. White, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Doris Day is here, too. Updike, who says that the singer and actress is one of his idols, reviews her autobiography, and talks with admiration about her hardy professionalism. There’s a spooky blandness to his voice in this review, as if he were speaking while hypnotized. His tone is rosy and smiling, but his words describe a dogged person who didn’t let the many batterings that she sustained in her private life interfere with a rigidly craftsmanlike approach to her work. Though Updike points out that many of her costars think she’s sexy, he never says, or even implies, if and how she’s sexy to him. His attitude recalls that of a boy who proudly and willfully aligns himself with someone he senses needs defending. He seems drawn to her because she gives him a chance to be her protector.
Updike’s image of Doris Day as a spunky workhorse is very similar to the one he gives us of himself as a critic. Making one astute distinction after another about the work of so many novelists, poets, and nonfiction writers seems to quench a perfectionist’s desire on his part to get it right, but he himself rarely seems to be fazed by the activity, and that may be why his criticism produces in the reader an airy, irritating sense of unlimited mental energy that is still waiting to be used on something. Updike seems to stand before us, at the end of each review, a smiling, likable man, his chores over for the day, ready for the next activity.
Updike apparently wants this breezy, effortless effect. He calls book reviewing his “improvised sub-career,” and he has always worked to have us see how unimportant it is to him. He gave his first collection of reviews, parodies, magazine columns, and odd essays the defiantly bland title “Assorted Prose” (1965). Entitling his second “Picked-Up Pieces” (1975)—it is composed primarily of reviews—he implied that his criticism was an ironic joke, and the book’s jacket cover, which he designed, was part of the joke. It is a black-and-white photo of the author standing before a street of good-sized clapboard houses. With a trace of a smile on his lips, and wearing a casual outfit of a crewneck sweater on top of a turtleneck, he holds what appear to be leaves, or maybe candy wrappers, in his cupped hand. The title and the jacket say that he’s not doing anything serious—he’s just a fellow out for a walk, picking up stuff, cleaning the neighborhood. The idea is mildly witty, but odd; in Updike’s determination that we see his reviewing as only an inconsequential chore he makes his book seem to be more about himself, though not in a way that’s clear, than about the subjects of his articles.
With the title “Hugging the Shore,” Updike says more emphatically that his criticism means little to him; and, again, in an effort to make light of it, he turns himself into the star of the proceedings. This jacket cover is also an informal black-and-white photograph of the author—this time he’s wearing Bermuda shorts and sitting in a rowboat, with sea grasses, a shoreline, and a house behind him. In a contorted foreword, he tells us that he, too, finds the idea of hugging the shore tame and unappetizing. “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing the open sea,” he says, and goes on,
One misses, hugging the shore, the halting mimetic prose of fiction, which seeks to sink itself in the mind of a character or the texture of a moment. What we love about fiction writers is their willingness to dare this submergence, to give up, in behalf of brute reality, the voice of a wise and presentable man. The critic comes to us in suit and tie. He is a gentleman. He is right. A pox on him, as Goethe said.
If the message isn’t clear that criticism is a waste of time for a real guy, he adds that, “as it happened…the payment for a monthly review roughly balanced a monthly alimony payment that was mine to make.”
Updike flashes so many masks before his face that we barely know what he stands for. It’s hard to take what he says about criticism literally; surely he believes that a critic can make as big and daring a leap in his work as a novelist can, and that, while some critics do speak as “wise and presentable” minds, some novelists and poets do, too. Updike’s real point, I think, has less to do with criticism versus fiction than with the way he wants to be seen. He’d like to make himself look weak, and us feel sorry for him, since he has lost so much time toiling in the supposedly unchallenging and thankless role of a reviewer. There’s a suggestion that we are to feel guilty, too, since presumably he has been toiling for our benefit. But then, not wanting us to be discomforted, or to think that he actually might be a timid man in a suit and tie, he tells us that he was only passing as a critic—he did it for the money.
This disembodied, playacting note appears in virtually everything Updike does. He always seems to want to get inside the skin of failure, and write from there; but he also wants us to know that the voice we’re hearing isn’t that of the real John Updike—he has shouldered this role only for the moment, for his and our good. He floats above his images of defeat, whether his tone is comic, as in his stories about the blocked writer Henry Bech, or whether his approach is more realistic, as in his attempts to see things from the angle of a small-city, ordinary American lug in his novels about Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, and of a frustrated and impassive third world leader in his novel The Coup. There is something ungrounded even in Updike’s novels and stories about suburban married life and child rearing; though the narrator speaks as a man who has weathered every domestic responsibility, he often seems to be, at heart, a passing observer taking notes. Yet, except in the Bech stories, Updike’s tone isn’t crisp and ironic—his underlying mood is too forlorn. Nor does he touch the tragic—his characters are too lightweight for that. What he gets is a hazy mixture of the two. The assumption behind Updike’s dismissive words about criticism is that he lets loose in his own fiction—but he doesn’t. His fictional characters don’t venture into deep waters. Though they’re seemingly free, they act, out of a blend of pride and resignation, as if they were imprisoned.
Updike’s reviews produce the same tethered effect. He shows how criticism can be the record of our most instinctive responses, and yet, whether he knows it or not, he leaves us with the feeling that our choices don’t matter much. Updike’s only real criterion as a reviewer is that a work be true to a kind of inner human realism, or what he calls the “home base of all humanism—the single, simple human life that we all more or less lead, with its crude elementals of nurture and appetite, love and competition, the sunshine of well-being and the inevitable night of death.” It’s hard to argue with this point of view, and he uses it in a flexible way. He can show how a naturalist novel is emotionally phony and unrealistic, and how a seemingly impenetrable work of pure literary experimentation—a novel by, say, Robert Pinget—is, when examined, surprisingly down-to-earth. And at first it’s exciting to read a reviewer who doesn’t treat some writers as sacrosanct, or imply that others are beneath his attention.
Updike’s approach takes us back to some of our earliest, and perhaps most spontaneous, feelings about books. The title, author, number of pages, publisher, and date of publication of each book he reviews are put in small type at the head of the piece; the format recalls book reports done in grade school, and these reviews might be called grade school book reports taken to the heights. They’re also extended and polished versions of the carefree, impulsive, on-the-spot verdicts many of us write in our minds when we browse in a book-store. No critic passes finer, more specific judgments on so many aspects of a book, right down to its merits as a piece of craftsmanship. Yet Updike can’t bring himself to simply dismiss, let alone damn—or lose himself in love of—another writer, and that leaves a neutralized, almost inert, vision of literature.