by

Kindness of Strangers

When I was working on a book on the history of The New Yorker magazine, I approached dozens of people for interviews. Almost everybody said yes, including a soberingly long lost of notables who have since passed on, including Emily Hahn, William Steig, William Maxwell, Joseph Mitchell, Brendan Gill, Pauline Kael, and Whitney Balliett. A few people didn’t respond (pocket vetoing the request, as it were), but only one explicitly said, in the manner of Bartleby the Scrivener, that he would prefer not to.

That was John Updike. He wrote me a postcard (one of his favorite means of communication, I later learned) saying that he had no objection in principle to interviews, in general or for my project in particular, but when he agreed to them, he invariably found that when the appointed day arrived, there was something else he would rather do. He softened the blow by adding that if I cared to send along questions in writing, he would be willing to answer them.

And so it came to be that I was corresponding with Updike, who was, to put it bluntly and accurately, my hero. It is hard to describe the thrill of finding a letter in the mailbox with a Beverly Farms, MA, return address (typed on what appeared to be an IBM Selectric), to open it, and to find an exquisitely intelligent and meticulously written reflection on some aspect of his long and distinguished career with the magazine. One example was the revelation that his very first short story accepted by the magazine, “Friends From Philadelphia” (1954), was prompted by reading John Cheever’s ironic New Yorker story “O Youth and Beauty!” and feeling that “there must be more to say about American life than this.”

Equally significant, Updike gave me permission to quote from his letters that reposed in various libraries. One, to his editor Maxwell, contained a line that I quoted in the book and often think about: “It occurs to me that the world would not be significantly poorer if I stopped writing altogether. Only a bottomless capacity for envy keeps me going. That, and the pleasure of reading proofs and designing book jackets.”

A few years later, I embarked on another book, which became The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing. For this one I solicited even more interviews: I wanted to talk to a lot of writers with strong styles, and hear their views on this issue. Once again, I was gobsmacked by the yesses—nearly 50 in all, including Junot Diaz, Sir Frank Kermode, Margaret Drabble, Nicholson Baker, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom, Jonathan Raban, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. This time I didn’t even bother asking Updike to sit down and chat, just wrote him a letter. He wrote back, and once again, we were corresponding. Needless to say, the 200 words or so in which he discussed the evolution of his own style constituted the best writing in the book.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. My friend and colleague Richard Davison (an Updike scholar who bears an uncanny facial resemblance to the novelist) congratulated me on being represented in Updike’s recently published final nonfiction collection, Higher Gossip. I had no idea what he was talking about. Dick explained that Updike, a magpie if there ever was one, reprinted the reflections on style as a brief essay, giving a prominent mention to The Sound on the Page.

Being in a book by John Updike is one of the better holiday presents I can imagine. My gift to you, Lingua Franca readers, is Updike’s reflections, which he titled “On One’s Own Style”:

I usually begin a new project excited by the idea of not sounding like Updike—Rabbit, Run, for instance, was an attempt to provide a prose more freewheeling and uninhibited than that in my New Yorker stories, which in general have an en brosse quality, sticking up in little points. When I began to write Rabbit, Run in the present tense, it was a conscious effort to escape the me who writes in the past tense and tends to get mired in elaborate backward-looking syntax. With Rabbit and his subsequent brothers, there was little looking back, just an impressionistic momentum and a fresh grasp of the language; lots of sentences that would be ordinary in past tense take on a hasty poetry in the present, even the “he says” expresses something different.

And so forth, story to story, book to book. The mandarin explosions of A Month of Sundays and The Coup sought relief from the drab Rabbit terrain. In Seek My Face, I tried to write the way Jackson Pollock painted, in long stringy loops.

Nevertheless, there will be a sameness due to the limits of a single personality. One’s effort as an artist is to extend those limits as much as possible. When I read my old prose, usually aloud before audiences, I am aware of phrases I would not use now, things I have forgotten I ever knew, imitations of Proust and Henry Green that would not be so naked now, but in general I am comfortable. Like a real voice and body, changes occur—but organically, within one identity.

 

 

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