Monday, January 28, 2008

Give John Updike the Nobel Prize

It will be a tragic thing if John Updike, currently 75, does not live to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

His output, of both fiction (22 novels and several collections of short fiction) and nonfiction (hundreds of articles in The New Yorker and the NYRB since the 1950's), is astounding. Critics are just now beginning to realize that his Rabbit series will go down as some of the most significant and masterfully written books of the twentieth century.

Most amazingly, Updike shows no sign of letting up. He continues to produce incisive, learned, and beautifully written criticism and essays at a clip that would embarrass writers half his age. (See, for example, his excellent piece on Klimt in the current NYRB.) Even in a magazine essay on art, Updike seems almost incapable of writing anything that is not beautiful: in his piece on Klimt he notes, for example, how the artist "sketched sex in something like its melancholy complexity."

Updike, who has won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award several times, may be at a disadvantage for the Nobel. His fiction often straddles the line between literature and pulp, high-brow and popular, between art and pornography: people read Updike on flights to Cincinatti and in graduate seminars at Yale. He is known, first and foremost, as a chronicler of adultery and lust -- and he describes these things in language more exquisite than any other American writer alive that I know -- Philip Roth included. But though sex is for Updike, as for Freud, his primary theme, his range is fantastic and terrifying: his prodigious collections of essays and magazine writings contain wonderful criticism of art, film, popular culture, and literature.

Updike is an American treasure. I hope we will see in him Stockholm before long.

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