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If you like John Updike's story, you might also like:
Louise Glück,
Nadine Gordimer,
John Grisham,
Norman Mailer,
W.S. Merwin,
James Michener,
Joyce Carol Oates
and Carol Shields

John Updike can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

John Updike's recommended reading: The Waste Land

Related Links:
Updike Society
Paris Review

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John Updike
John Updike
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John Updike Interview (page: 7 / 7)

Two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction

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  John Updike

What writers do you enjoy reading? What novels do you read for fun or amazement?

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: There are a number of contemporary writers whose work I used to try to keep up with faithfully. Anne Tyler was one when she was younger, before she became a best-seller. I thought she was really quite a magical writer, and a very sweet-natured novelist, no gripes. Just trying to show you what I tried to do, to show ordinary life as being worth writing about.

Philip Roth is, of course, a marvelous writer, and a great liberator of what could be said. I have fallen behind, after reviewing and admiring his earlier work a great deal. Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch were English writers that I tried to keep up with. I'm trying to think of what I'm reading now, and all I get is some proofs of my own book, but I know there have been some. I recently reviewed a book called The Master by an Irish writer called Colm Toibin. Very interesting in the attempt, but it was static in a strange way. But it was an honorable attempt to write a novel that had never been written before. I don't think Henry James has been the hero of too many novels!

I also reviewed a lot of classics that I would do well to reread, or else to read for the first time. I recently read Vanity Fair at long last. Here I am, 70-odd years old, and I never read Vanity Fair! In a way that is the most enjoyable, when you put yourself to school with an old classic.

You mentioned Conrad earlier.

John Updike: Yes. I read a fair amount of Conrad and there are still some left that I never got around to, but he's wonderful, amazing. Amazing that he did all this in a second language, or maybe a third language even, but he had the ability to make the novel seem serious. At the same time he had this backlog of exotic ports and sailing, being a ship master, so he had a lot of middlebrow experience plus this highbrow approach to what writing was all about. That makes for a very tonic kind of fiction I think.

There are undoubtedly going to be some would-be writers, and young just-starting-out writers who will be listening to you talking about writing. Do you have some advice for them?

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: You hesitate to give advice to young writers, because there's a limit to what you can say. It's not exactly like being a musician, or even an artist, where there's a set number of skills that have to be mastered. I marvel at musicians, by the way, that people can play the piano and the violin with that speed and that accuracy. Obviously they need a lot of training. Sometimes writers need no training, and some of the amateur ones who just jump in do better than the ones who have the Ph.D. in creative writing. Colleges are very willing now to teach you, to give you a whole course of creative writing classes. Although I took some when I was a student, I'm a little skeptical about the value.

I think that maybe what young writers have lost is the sense of writing as a trade. When I was young it was still a trade. There were enough magazines -- middlebrow magazines, so-called general interest magazines -- they ran articles but also fiction, and you felt that there was an appetite out there for this sort of fiction. The academic publications run fiction, but I don't think they have quite replaced them in this sense. Fiction is in danger of becoming a kind of poetry. Only other poets read it. Only other fiction writers care about it. So I don't sneer at writers like Stephen King who have managed to capture the interest of a large audience. Any way that you can break through. I figure if you don't have any audience you shouldn't be doing this. Tom Wolfe, the journalist, has spouted off very eloquently about the failure of the American writers to galvanize readership the way he thinks Zola and Dreiser and some others did. I think you can force this. We can't do Zola now exactly. Somehow it just doesn't sing. So you're sort of stuck with being a -- whatever -- post-modern.

To the young writers, I would merely say, "Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say -- or more -- a day to write. Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. Henry Greene, one of my pets, was an industrialist actually. He was running a company, and he would come home and write for just an hour in an armchair, and wonderful books were created in this way. So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don't be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won't run your stuff. We're still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it's not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. "Read what excites you," would be advice, and even if you don't imitate it you will learn from it. All those mystery novels I read I think did give me some lesson about keeping a plot taut, trying to move forward or make the reader feel that kind of a tension is being achieved, a string is being pulled tight. Other than that, don't try to get rich on the other hand. If you want to get rich, you should go into investment banking or being a certain kind of a lawyer. But, on the other hand, I would like to think that in a country this large -- and a language even larger -- that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Before we go, we'd like to ask if you have a concept of the American Dream.

John Updike: I certainly bought into the American Dream that was voiced by the propagandists of World War II, and I was a great moviegoer, and the movies in the '30s and '40s were where you could see preachments about the American dream. So, I still believe in the American Dream. I see it in terms of freedom, and a government that trusts its people to exercise freedom, that this is not a government that allows you to give, that allows you to explore, and doesn't dampen your own creativity -- in the broadest sense -- with a lot of dictums or dogmas or restraints. So, insofar as we can remain a free country that allows for the interplay of personal energies. I think this is still a country that is not only working towards a dream, but actually is the dream in action. For all of the knocks that we take in the foreign press, and we have taken a lot lately, I think this is still a country where people want to come, and they want to come, I think, because they feel they are -- a French friend of one of my stepsons, a boy about 16, just said about the way people dress in America, he said, "They are not afraid." I thought this was a great insight, you know. In France, a lot of people -- the French are in a way afraid not to dress in the appropriate costume of a happy housewife or whatever, and there is a kind of sense of the proper way to dress. And, in America you have the sense -- so that was his way of saying that it's a country without a government we need be afraid of. The country, the land has been good to me. I realize I was lucky, and born at a lucky time, too. So, I hesitate to prescribe for today's children, but I would hope they would grow up with something of the same sense that it's a privilege to be an American.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream

What was your reaction when U and I came out, a book by a talented young contemporary writer, Nicholson Baker, about his admiration for you?

John Updike Interview Photo
John Updike: It was funny. I think Random House was the publisher, and they weren't sure how I'd react, so I was shown a photocopy of the manuscript fairly late in the game. But how could I not be pleased by it? As you say, it's the homage of a younger writer, and what's charming about it is that Baker, with his gift for precision, admits he hasn't read an awful lot of me. The long list of books by me he has not read, and some of the things that he chose to take as inspirational, in fact, were either not there at all or were not there in quite the way he remembered them. So it was a very good image of how we use other writers. We take what we want and we take what we need, and I'm happy to have been of some use to Nicholson Baker really. I was very moved and amused by it, because it's funny.

You asked me who I liked to read. Well, I do read everything that Nicholson Baker writes, not only because he flattered me in this way, but because I think he's very interesting and really is trying to tackle the whole fiction ball from a different angle. I've never seen anybody who writes quite like him or admits to these obsessions. Talk about the daily and the picayune small things! His last book, A Box of Matches, was very much the sort of hyper-Updike in the details. I was pleased and amused by the book and grateful for it.

And we are all grateful for all that you've written, and thank you for the great interview.

Thank you.

It was a great pleasure.

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This page last revised on Sep 28, 2010 20:57 EDT
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