Saturday, July 15, 2006

Why Poppy Z. Brite

(a favorite writer of mine, and a particularly good blogger to boot) hates John Updike (I can't figure out how to link just to that entry, so I've pasted the whole thing in below):

This is just one of many reasons, actually, but it's a dilly.

I've been reading a bunch of 'literary' magazines, trying to figure out where I might send the stories I've been writing that don't contain elements of horror or mystery or any other damn thing I can identify -- they're just stories about people. And, to be honest, I'm really not enjoying these magazines very much or feeling very excited at the prospect of publishing anything in them, assuming they would even have my popular-fiction-writing self. And I'm innocently flipping through one, and suddenly I come upon the first stanza of 'An Ode to My Hurting Left Hand':

Why has arthritis, a disease of wear
attacked you, when the right, your counterpart,
has done the work? Oh yes -- I guess in golf
you gripped the club the tighter, and at night.
to love myself to sleep, I bade you grip
my stiffened nether member while I dreamed
of copulation with an unsteadily
imagined lady, whose obliging charms
opened the path, perhaps, to drowsy calm.

Mr. Updike, I'm sorry you have arthritis. I truly am. Both my grandmothers suffered from it, I suspect I have a touch myself, and I know it is no picnic. Sometimes it's torture. In spite of everything, I wouldn't have wished it on you.

BUT WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY, O WHY do we have to hear about your STIFFENED NETHER MEMBER?

I mean, I once had the misfortune to read a never-produced screenplay that contained the phrase 'tidal wave of daddy-acid,' and I thought, nay, hoped that was the worst sequence of words I would come across in my lifetime. But I really think 'stiffened nether member' might trump it.

And, while I'm at it, I'm really not all that interested in how you held your damn golf club either.

If you haven't read Liquor and Prime, Brite's absolutely delightful pair of New Orleans crime novels featuring chef John Rickey and his boyfriend G-Man, you should remedy the situation as soon as possible; and the latest installment (titled Soul Kitchen) is due out later this month.


  1. David Foster Wallace demolished Updike on similar grounds here. I'll just quote the best bit:


    In case this sounds like a harsh summary, here's hard statistical
    evidence of just how much a "departure" for Mr. Updike this novel really

    Total number of pages about the Sino-American war -- causes, duration,
    casualties: 0.75;

    Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;

    Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull's home, plus fauna,
    weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;

    Total number of pages about Mexico's repossession of the U.S. Southwest:

    Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull's penis and his various
    feelings about it: 7.5;

    Total number of pages about the prostitute's body, with particular
    attention to sexual loci: 8.75;

    Total number of pages about golf: 15;

    Total number of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like "I want women
    to be dirty" and "We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis" and
    "She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price"
    and "The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching
    point of contact": 36.5.

  2. What an awfully good link--I personally find it bad for the soul, so to speak, to write really devastating critiques of novels, it's not the way things take me; and yet I do feel in this case the animus is completely justified by the badness of the writing....

  3. I think DFW has justification since, as he explains, he actually enjoys Updike and was brutally disappointed. He also does a good job of explaining where Updike went wrong (admittedly, it's kind of obvious), so it's not just some dumb Dale Peck rant. The experience of being let down by a beloved author deserves sharing.

    I'm not sure that I've gone through it so acutely with any of my favorite authors, but maybe I've just forgotten.

  4. I don't think I've had that either, at least not so strongly (of course sometimes a new book from a favorite author's a disappointment), which also makes me wonder whether it isn't a certain personality type that's more likely to have this experience: you have to have sort of millennial hopes of the author in the first place in order to be so very disappointed when they let you down. In my experience of reading Updike, there's better Updike and worse Updike, but they are similar in kind just not in quality; so that I wonder whether it isn't just partly that DFW grew out of Updike as a reader. And I do think Updike is a grow-out-of-able writer (I shouldn't say this, it's more controversial, but I feel some of the same thing about Ian McEwan). In other words, it's not the case of a writer of great good faith somehow losing their integrity, it's a weakness that was always present just coming out much more strongly in the sloppier and less original later writing.

  5. What an appropriate expression - 'millenial hopes', though I disagree about McEwan. In Saturday there are sentences - whole passages - wrought in gold. And despite its flaws - yes, the pages & pages about a squash game are tiresome, the Arnold poem - McEwan has captured something essential about those lives, about what it means to be upper middle class in early 21st century London (& not to be), and what we can hold on to as we age. And it's one of the novels I've remembered vividly, when many others have slipped away. (I wouldn't argue with you about Amsterdam, however.) So while I agree that each of us probably has grow-outable authors - and that I've never particularly grown into Updike, BTW - Ewan has quite some mileage left in him for me yet.

    (I doubt that you meant this, Jenny, but it sounds as if you almost expect writers to get sloppier and less original as they age.)

    The 'growing out of an author experience' doesn't always have to be related to reader expectations and high hopes. It happens for me with a lot of light reading, particularly when I've got used to the writer's style and to the types of voice & plot & characters they're likely to reuse. But then again, sometimes I'll return to one or another of them as comfort food.

  6. I must read SATURDAY and see what I think; the combination of the New Yorker excerpt and the Banville review was enough to make me shudder in horror...

    The sloppiness & age thing is a complicated one--of course there are many writers of whom this could absolutely never be said, writers whose craft gets better and better (I am not a huge Alice Munro fan, for instance, but certainly it could be said of her; or J. M. Coetzee is never going to start writing sloppy books, it's just not possible; and Joyce Carol Oates is prolific but brilliant, again I see her pushing to new heights and trying new things, just as Philip Roth has done in the last ten years--something I greatly admire). But there are quite a lot of high-profile novelists who do (it seems to me) start churning stuff out in their 70s that is very similar to and significantly lower-quality than their earlier work. I fear that Bellow is an example of this; Iris Murdoch was a terrible example; whether it's that they become temperamentally incapable of taking advice from editors, or faculties weakening & the stamina necessary for a really good edit no longer at their command, I couldn't say.

    Oh, and I'm going to paste in a great quotation from Jonathan Lethem that I had on my blog in the fall, it was on my mind before but not really apropos but it's come into closer relationship. It's his essay "The Beards" (in "The Disappointment Artist"), in which Lethem describes himself asking works of art "to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family," then plumbing them so deep that "many perfectly sufficient works of art would become thin, anemic":

    This was especially true of anything that assumed a posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly, intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick, Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The artists who'd seemed to promise the most were the ones who'd created art that stirred me while seeming to absent themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones capable of failing my needs most violently. When I discovered their imperfections, my own hope of absenting myself from emotional risk seemed imperiled. It was as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my oversized needs and turned away, flinched from what I'd asked them to feel on my behalf.

  7. (Oh, just to clarify: I meant that Alice Munro DOES get better and better, not that she doesn't; unfortunate phrasing...)

  8. Yes, do read Saturday - it's flawed, but in such a human way, not all that far from what Lethem means - a delicious quote, thanks. This emotional risk seems to me to be the hardest of all to brave.

    Have you read any Colm Toibin? I've not tried any of his novels yet, but have just read two short stories, both in a cool lucid prose behind which there's no hiding. All the glitter of metaphor and stylistic acrobatics (self-accusatory, BTW) so often obscures emotional impoverishment. Toibin is very moving, very kind to his characters, though he misses very little. I think I must read one of his novels soon.

    I wouldn't argue with you about the ageing phenomenon, though there are probably different reasons, depending upon the author in question. And sometimes I wonder if age is involved per se, at least in certain cases, or whether an artist simply reaches the bottom of the creative well. In other words, what if they started very late? Would they still get x years of productive work?

  9. Just want to add something more: it's not just a question of craft getting better as a writer ages. Craft for me is like technique in violin - essential, but doesn't suffice to make a really superb musician. So theoretically, even if craft stagnated, or possibly deteriorated somewhat, the insights might continue to deepen.

  10. Toibin's on my vague "TBR" list, must actually get hold of a book or 2 of his and put them in the pile. This summer is shaping up to be a no-fiction spell, very strange though it's nice ot be so immersed in the work reading, but I will make sure to get him (and that other guy you mentioned the other day who sounds great, I've forgotten his name now....) in the fall.

  11. Hm, and just noticed the flaw in my own argument. If technique/craft is essential but then deteriorates ...

    Oh dear, which other author? My memory - now that is definitely deteriorating ( and has never been all that good).

  12. Interesting thread! A couple of thoughts:

    Updike's sexual digressions have always struck me as eccentric and even weird. Ed prods him a little on this subject in his podcast last week, fixing on Updike's strange metaphors in describing the human body. Updike talks about the challenge that writers of his generation had in trying to weave sexual life into fiction as it became more permissible to do so. I'd say it's a challenge he's failed at quite spectacularly. Though not for lack of trying.

    Re Wallace's breakdown, I've always thought Updike, for all his professed interest in the life of average ("unrecognized") Americans, has a vision of the average person that is very small indeed.

    Still: love the sentences.

    Re Bellow's late books, they don't seem more lightly edited to me. Ravelstein is positively glossy (from an editorial perspective) compared to an early masterpiece like Augie. I think the books got *less* sloppy as he got older. Which is not saying they got better.

  13. Sorry - here's the link to Ed's Updike podcast:

  14. Yes, you've put your finger on what I don't admire in Updike, not the bad sex writing but that sense that everyone is morally small. Not why I read fiction!

    You've also helped me clarify what I meant by sloppy--morally sloppy, not stylistically sloppy. I fear I must invoke the dreaded/forbidden word "self-indulgent," I know we are not supposed to use it when we talk about books (unnecessary speculation about intentionality, etc. etc.) but you do sometimes just get a very strong sense of the author being easier on himself in an unflattering way compared to earlier books. Too long since I've read Ravelstein for me to really say, but I'd put it in that category, maybe. I guess I really do want to put it back into temperamental and ethical terms.

  15. Nicholson Baker's "U+I" (by far my favorite book of his) catalogs a number of Updike's quirks. There's one memorable passage where Baker quotes an Updike novel in which the narrator discusses the "sagging sallow yellow skin between my wife's breasts," and Baker says that Updike's wife must have been unhappy to read that. Lots of examples of Updike's moral smallness as well.

    Hugging the Shore introduced me to plenty of great European (and American) literature as a teen, but I never did get into Updike's fiction...there was something so trivial about his subjects, an acceptance of life on terms that I found unmeaningful.

  16. I realized this morning that Paul Auster did indeed let me down with Mr. Vertigo (his subsequent work was even worse), and I think it was exactly as you said. I was 19 at the time and grew out of him as he was producing lazier work. I've actually hesitated going back to the earlier stuff for fear that it would damage my pleasant impressions of it.

    I think it applies even more to DeLillo. My staggering disappointment at Underworld was really a reaction to ever-present flaws that had finally ballooned out of control. But again, this was a teenage fandom.

  17. Yes, Paul Auster is an interesting example here (and would probably fit the Lethem theory also). Haven't read U+I other than brief dipping-into at one point, will get it--I find Baker a delightful stylist but sometimes a bit light on content, this sounds very much to my taste though. And I was going to name DeLillo before except that I really don't like his early work either, & so it seems to me that the flaws were there early & just got more out of control in the recent stuff! That said, I think the opening ball-game sequence in UNDERWORLD is wonderfully good, if only he had just published it as a lovely short novel & stopped there....

    My other example, I suppose, is John Fowles. But that then also gets into the question of books one likes as a teenager & subsequently finds little need for.... (Into which category I am afraid I must put Nabokov, who I love & admire--and his style is always amazing to me whenever I reread one of his books--but find I do not miss when I am not reading. It has that chilly or cerebral quality that had much more appeal for me when I was still officially a Young Person....)