When we praise someone in their presence, there is always the suspicion that we are trying to win their favor or influence their reception by others. This is especially true when we try to honor those who are already copiously acclaimed. Fortunately, in situations where only the highest praise will do, there are rituals that relieve us of the hazard of making a spectacle of ourselves. Nobody minds, for example, if you bow low before a king or queen; decorum demands nothing less. You are likewise excused for a mawkish wedding toast, especially if you have had a couple of drinks beforehand. In some social situations, the unwritten rules of small talk practically require you to defend the superiority of the local athletic team or your favorite sports star. If you are a literary critic, however, praising a writer to the hilt will strike many readers as an abandonment of your vocation, if not your senses. Going beyond appreciation tempered by criticism will make you sound perilously sentimental.
Why is encomium for writers such a disrespected art form? Why is it so awkward to praise the words that best honor the shared substance of our lives? There might be many reasons why we hesitate to acknowledge the beautiful in linguistic form. Maybe our polemical and polarized culture has hardened us to the suppleness of handcrafted sentences, or maybe, from a less elevated vantage, too many of us who write about writing are frustrated writers ourselves, unable or unwilling to acknowledge the wedge that great writing cleaves between the pleasant and the perfect. Writers or not, the fact that the core of much secondary education in America consists of English classes cannot fail to shape even the most erudite literary interpretation. Schools drill into us from a young age the idea that a clever interpretation of a writer's limitations is the most minimal index of sophistication. In any case, our days are so saturated in words that, thanks to the web, words count less than ever before. The writers of the world post their messages because they are aggrieved or are grieving, not because they want to say something in just the right words. Writers who write beautifully can never be given the last word.
All of this is just to say that offering John Updike the praise he deserved while he was still alive was rhetorically challenging. He was such a good writer that anything shy of shooting over the mark sounded petty when coming from academics or envious when coming from fellow writers. Praise from academic quarters was especially stingy, which made following Updike's career as a professor a mark of both distinction and eccentricity. Updike had doubters rather than critics, disbelievers who, like disbelievers of every kind of miracle, refused to investigate what they were certain could not be true.
His death has brought his admirers out of the closet and has given hyperbolic assessments their due. It has also forced his most devoted followers to relinquish their exclusive hold on him, as if now a collective sigh must be uttered over his name. Updike was our happy Proust, infinitely observant but not self-indulgently tortured, at home with the bourgeoisie rather than ambivalent about the aristocracy, perhaps because he was in love more with things than the memory of things. Now that we cannot look forward to the steady flow of his new work, we are left to pay the homage to him that he paid to our world.
Yet even in death Updike continues to deliver, at least in The New Yorker, which is understandably reluctant to let its union with him be parted. It was jolting to read his review of a biography of his friend John Cheever just as I was settling into the thought that he would write no more. Perhaps this was Updike's way of mocking as premature any attempt to foreclose on his productivity. At one point in the article, Updike voices his annoyance of the biographer's observation that Cheever is unfashionable in the college classroom. …