In response to:
The Illustrative Itch from the April 10, 1986 issue
To the Editors:
It is always good to follow John Updike on his spirited and thoughtful explorations of the human condition. His short essay, “The Illustrative Itch” [NYR, April 10], is no exception but I was surprised not to find among his references to drawing writers of the past and present the name of Günter Grass. This may well be because the essay is part of a book that is to appear at the end of this month.
Grass is a writing artist par excellence. Exhibitions of his etchings, engravings and drawings (some of the latter done with a sea gull quill and with the ink he obtains from octopi bought at the fish markets of Portugal’s Algarve) are seventy-five so far, and they have been shown all over the world, from New York to Peking.
“Sentences originate in my drawings to be subsequently enscribed on another piece of paper,” Grass wrote. “Not only because writing and the drawn line are equally graphic, but also because pictorial representation, drawn or written…goes beyond the borders of artistic categorization, even if the craft and materials are irritatingly different. Maybe it is the origins of art from picture language to sign language which reminds us that the classical division and delimitations of the arts are quite recent and only due to academic imposition. That is why questions asked by the public such as: ‘Are you now more of a writer than an artist,’ are as understandable as they are ridiculous.” (From About Drawing and Writing by Günter Grass, translation Glyn Uzzell, catalogue 1984 Centro Cultural, Marie and Volker Huber, São Lourenço, Algarve, Portugal.)
Mr. Updike says something similar in “The Illustrative Itch.” Perhaps he has not seen Grass’s short comments and would enjoy knowing that another of our prominent living writers is observing how both disciplines, drawing and writing, “cross-fertilize hermaphroditically…. A writing artist is someone who does not change his ink.”
June 26, 1986