On Updike

John Updike died on Tuesday. I liked a lot of his writing, especially the zany The Centaur. He could have been one of us fabulists, if fame and fortune hadn’t pulled him away. He said a simple and wise thing:

“The artist brings something into the world that didn’t exist before, and he does it without destroying something else.”

Of course political art—not always a contradiction in terms—can destroy institutions, or eat away at them. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Guernica.

It’s fair to say that white America wouldn’t have elected an African-American president without the integrating effect of black music, from Louis Armstrong to hip-hop, and black drama and fiction, commercial as much as “serious.”

(Genre people are always wrestling with that word, because it’s a shorthand antonym for “commercial.” So what do you call commercial work that has serious consequences? Effective, I guess.)

When I first started working at MIT, back in the 80s, our writing department had a joint cocktail party with the Harvard writing department. It was kind of oil-and-water. One exchange stands out in my memory. A Harvard professor had said something dismissive about science fiction, and a colleague reminded her that she had taught The Left Hand of Darkness.

“That’s true,” she explained patiently, “but that’s not science fiction. It’s literature.”

So I went home and wrote about flying squids.


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