Updike: America's Man of Letters

By William H. Pritchard | Go to book overview

INTORDUCTION
THE MAN OF LETTERS

In the fall of 1997, at the time John Updike's novel Toward the End of Time was published, the New York Observer featured a page headlined "Twilight of the Phallocrats", consisting of pieces by the critic Sven Birkerts and the novelist David Foster Wallace about the current state of American fiction. That state was not good insofar as it concerned what Birkerts called "our giants, our arts-bemedaled senior male novelists." He was referring to Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow, whose recent novels were "manifestly second-rate" yet who were not "getting called onto the carpet for it." Birkerts suggested that these eminent writers would be well advised to yield their crowns to a younger generation of "brothers," novelists such as Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, and John Edgar Wideman, who had their eyes on politics and society, the "larger world" Updike and his contemporaries, in their obsessive preoccupation with the self, were neglecting. Wallace took a similar line in more abusive terms, declaring that readers under age forty particularly female ones had no time for what he termed the g.m.n.s (Great Male Novelists) and disliked Updike in particular. Toward the End of Time was a prime example of what these novelists shared "their radical self-absorption and their uncritical celebration of this self-absorption both in themselves and in their characters."

This is aggressive, knockabout polemic of the emperor-has-noclothes variety, and for both Birkerts and Wallace narcissism or

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