Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Updike

Updike’s ladder

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Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 13, 2017.

Last year, the author Anjali Enjeti published an article in The Atlantic titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to what Enjeti writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says dryly, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I first encountered her article while reading the authoritative biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” Even Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the sheer productivity and variety of Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being prolific. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of chasing after a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially account for the prevalence in literary fiction of frustration and unresolved narratives. It also explains why it helps to be privileged enough to fail for years.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even as you’re transformed by it. I think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder, including Enjeti, who I’m pleased to note finally scored her book deal—she has an essay collection in the works from the University of Georgia Press. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Beyond the golden age

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On August 13, 2015, I sat down to write an email to my agent. I was going through a challenging period in my career—I had just finished a difficult suspense novel that ended up never being sold—and I wasn’t exactly sure what would come next. As I weighed my options, I found myself thinking about turning to nonfiction, which was a prospect that I had occasionally contemplated. One possible subject had caught my attention, and that morning, for the first time ever, I put it into words. I wrote:

I’ve been thinking about a book on John W. Campbell, Jr., the pulp author and editor who ran Astounding Science Fiction, later known as Analog, for more than three decades. Campbell’s fingerprints are on everything from I, Robot to Dune to Star Trek—Isaac Asimov called him “the most powerful force in science fiction ever”—and his influence on global culture is incalculable. Late in his life, he became increasingly erratic and conservative, embraced a range of crackpot theories, and played an important role in the early history of dianetics and Scientology. There’s a tremendous amount of fascinating material available in his published letters, in his editorials, in his own fiction—he wrote the original story that became the basis for The Thing—and in the reminiscences of nearly every major science fiction writer from the first half of this century. Yet there’s never been a proper biography of Campbell or consideration of his legacy. And I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.

And I concluded: “It’s a big topic, but if properly handled, I think it shows real promise. I’d love to discuss further today, if possible.”

That was the beginning of the long road that led to Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, which is finally being released today. But there were times when I feared that it would never get past the daydream stage. Based on the ensuing email exchange, it sounds like my agent and I spoke about it over the phone that afternoon, and while I don’t recall much about our discussion, I remember that he was encouraging, although he sounded a few cautionary notes. Writing a big mainstream biography would mean a considerable shift in my career trajectory—up until that point, I had only published novels, short fiction, and essays—and it would take a lot of convincing to persuade a publisher that I was ready to take on this kind of project. At first, all of my energy was devoted to putting together a convincing proposal, which took about four months of work, during which I did much of the preliminary research and went through several rounds of feedback and rewrites. It wound up being about seventy pages long, and it was focused entirely on Campbell. We went out to a handful of publishers toward the end of the following January, and we got indications of interest from two editors. One was Julia Cheiffetz at Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins, who suggested that we “reframe” the book to bring in a few other famous writers, since Campbell wasn’t as well known in the mainstream. (She pointed specifically to Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña by David Hajdu as one possible model.) I responded that I could expand the book to include Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, and the notion was agreeable enough that I was able to announce the project on this blog on February 26, 2016.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then, both in my life and in everyone else’s. I couldn’t be happier with how the book turned out, but what strikes me the most now about the whole process is one line from that original email: “I’m starting to think that I might just be the guy to write it.” Looking back, I can’t for the life of me recall what inspired me to write that sentence, which in retrospect seems full of unwarranted confidence. About halfway through this book, I realized that there was a good reason why no biography of Campbell had ever been written. It’s just an incredibly complicated project, and working on it for nearly three years to the exclusion of everything else was barely enough to do it justice. When I look at the result, I’m very proud, but I also feel that it could easily have been much longer. (In fact, the first draft was twice as long as what ended up in print, and it wasn’t because I was padding it.) I didn’t have all the critical tools or the background that I needed when I started, and much of my recent life has been devoted to turning myself into the kind of person that it seemed to require. What I had in mind, basically, was a book that looked a certain way. It was sort of like Hajdu’s book, but also like a prestige literary biography along the lines of Adam Begley’s Updike, which is the kind of thing that I personally enjoy reading. This imposed certain expectations when it came to tone, size, and scholarship, and my ultimate goal was to end up something that wouldn’t look out of place on the same shelf—apart, perhaps, from the exploding space station on the cover. Along the way, I did the best impersonation that I could of the kind of person who could write such a book, and toward the end, I like to think that I more or less grew into the role. At every turn, I tried to ask myself: “What would a real biographer do?” And while I’m clearly the last person in the world who can be objective about this, I feel that the finished product reflects those standards.

Anyway, it’s out in the world now, and not surprisingly, I’ve been wondering endlessly about how it will be received—although it isn’t all that I have on my mind. This is still a terrible time, and there are moments when I can barely work up enough enthusiasm to care deeply about anything but what I see in the headlines. (When my publisher decided to push the release date back from August to October, part of me found it hard to believe that people would have the bandwidth to read about anything except the midterms, and I don’t think I was entirely wrong.) But I’m going to close this post with a direct appeal, and I promise that it’s the only time that I’ll ever say something like this, at least for this particular book. If you’ve enjoyed this blog or my writing in general, I’d encourage you to consider buying a copy of Astounding. I was lucky to have the chance to work on almost nothing else for the last three years, and I’d very much like to do it again. Whether or not that happens will hinge in large part on how well this book does. The more I think about Astounding, in fact, the more I feel that that it couldn’t have happened in any other way. It needed all the time and commitment that I was able to give it, and it also benefited from being released through a commercial publishing house, which subjected it to important pressures that obliged it to be more focused than it might have been if I had gone through an academic imprint. And it’s the better for it. Very few critical works on science fiction have been produced under such circumstances, but I also suspect, deep down, that this is how a book like this ought to be written. At least it’s the only way that I’ll ever be able to write one. If I’m ever going to do it again, enough people have to agree with me to the extent of paying for a copy. That’s only sales pitch that I have—except to say that if you’ve read this far, you’ll probably enjoy this book. And I’m grateful beyond words that I had the chance to do it even once.

Written by nevalalee

October 23, 2018 at 8:12 am

American Stories #5: Couples

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

At a time when many of us are more conscious than usual of living through history, for better or worse, we’ve naturally started to look for parallels from the past, which partially explains the cultural impact of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary The Vietnam War. One undervalued source of insight is the fiction of John Updike, who around the time of Rabbit Redux began to conceive of his novels as snapshots of the eras in which they took place. (It’s the kind of strategy that you can pursue only when you’re reasonably sure that you’ll be able to publish a book every few years for the rest of your life.) Updike’s contribution is especially valuable because his personal wariness toward progressivism—he was in favor of American intervention in Vietnam—allowed him to engage in a level of detailed, everyday reportage that might elude many writers who were more committed to social change. Couples, which is set in the waning days of Camelot, has the clearest affinities to our own time, and it marks the author’s most ambitious attempt to weave a single narrative out of our national and private selves, as Adam Begley writes in his biography Updike:

In an elaborately patterned novel, the chain of significance that links sex, children, the Kennedys, adultery, divorce, and abortion is just one strand of meaning among many…In the novel’s first scene, the Hanemas, Piet and Angela, are getting ready for bed after a party. In an attempt to seduce his wife, Piet does a handstand in the bedroom; Angela, who’s seen this stunt before, tells him, “Shh. You’ll wake the children.” This rebuke only eggs him on; he toddles toward the bed on his knees, imitating their younger daughter: “Dadda, Dadda, wake up-up, Dadda. The Sunnay paper’s here, guess what? Jackie Kenneny’s having a baby!”

Months afterward, the daughter tells her father: “Daddy, wake up! Jackie Kenneny’s baby died because it was born too tiny.” A few pages later, Piet thinks to himself as his children watch television: “This poison was their national life. Not since Korea had Piet cared about news. News happened to other people.”

The novel’s centerpiece is a satirical tour de force, lasting almost thirty pages, set on November 22, 1963. Foxy, Piet’s lover, hears the news of the Kennedy assassination during a dental appointment—as Updike did—and her reaction echoes her guilt over the affair: “She tried to picture the dead man, this young man almost of her generation, with whom she could have slept.” Her dentist, Freddy Thorne, is planning to throw a party that night, and he laments on being told that he should cancel: “But I’ve bought all the booze.” On the next page, we read:

The Thornes decided to have their party after all. In the late afternoon, after Oswald had been apprehended and Johnson sworn in, and the engines of national perpetuity had demonstrated their strength, Georgene called all the houses of the invited and explained that the food and liquor had been purchased, that the guests had bought their dresses and had their tuxedos cleaned, that she and Freddy would feel lonely tonight and the children would be so disappointed, that on this terrible day she saw nothing wrong in the couples who knew each other feeling terrible together. In a way, Georgene explained to Angela, it would be a wake, an Irish wake, and a formal dinner-dance was very fitting for the dead man, who had had such style.

Updike based the account on a real party, of which he recalled years later: “We didn’t know what gesture to make, so we made none.” And the result should resonate with all of us who have ever heard the news of an unspeakable tragedy and then blithely gone on with our lives. (A quip about the discovery that Oswald was a leftist echoes the train of thought that runs through so many minds after the latest mass shooting or terrorist attack: “Did you hear? It wasn’t one of ours, it was one of theirs.”) “We had become detached from the national life,” Updike said later. “Our private lives had become the real concern.” This doesn’t seem to be our problem now. But it still rings true when Piet watches his friends dancing and thinks: “It seemed that the couples were gliding on the polished top of Kennedy’s casket.”

Written by nevalalee

January 5, 2018 at 9:00 am

Updike’s ladder

with 2 comments

In the latest issue of The Atlantic, the author Anjali Enjeti has an article titled “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After Ten Years.” If just reading those words makes your palms sweat and puts your heart through a few sympathy palpitations, congratulations—you’re a writer. No matter where you might be in your career, or what length of time you can mentally insert into that headline, you can probably relate to Enjeti when she writes:

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade.

“Things didn’t go as planned,” Enjeti says drily, noting that after landing and leaving two agents, she’s been left with six unpublished manuscripts and little else to show for it. She goes on to share the stories of other writers in the same situation, including Michael Bourne of Poets & Writers, who accurately calls the submission process “a slow mauling of my psyche.” And Enjeti wonders: “So after sixteen years of writing books and ten years of failing to find a publisher, why do I keep trying? I ask myself this every day.”

It’s a good question. As it happens, I came across her article while reading the biography Updike by Adam Begley, which chronicles a literary career that amounts to the exact opposite of the ones described above. Begley’s account of John Updike’s first acceptance from The New Yorker—just months after his graduation from Harvard—is like lifestyle porn for writers:

He never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: “I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.” To extend the metaphor…the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward:

A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to “John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,” proposed that he sign a “first-reading agreement,” a scheme devised for the “most valued and most constant contributors.” Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was “rather unusual” for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor “of such short standing,” but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions…and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: “[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.” And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path…Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday…none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss…This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, “on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain”), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Begley doesn’t mention that the phrase “regularity and avoidance of strain” is actually meant to evoke the act of defecation, but even this provides us with an odd picture of writerly contentment. As Dick Hallorann says in The Shining, the best movie about writing ever made: “You got to keep regular, if you want to be happy.”

If there’s a larger theme here, it’s that the qualities that we associate with Updike’s career—with its reliable production of uniform hardcover editions over the course of five decades—are inseparable from the “orderly” circumstances of his rise. Updike never lacked a prestigious venue for his talents, which allowed him to focus on being productive. Writers whose publication history remains volatile and unpredictable, even after they’ve seen print, don’t always have the luxury of being so unruffled, and it can affect their work in ways that are almost subliminal. (A writer can’t survive ten years of waiting for a book deal without spending the entire time convinced that he or she is on the verge of a breakthrough, anticipating an ending that never comes, which may partially explain the literary world’s fondness for frustration and unresolved narratives.) The short answer to Begley’s question is that struggle is good for a writer, but so is success, and you take what you can get, even you’re transformed by it. I seem to think on a monthly basis of what Nicholson Baker writes of Updike in his tribute U and I:

I compared my awkward public self-promotion too with a documentary about Updike that I saw in 1983, I believe, on public TV, in which, in one scene, as the camera follows his climb up a ladder at his mother’s house to put up or take down some storm windows, in the midst of this tricky physical act, he tosses down to us some startlingly lucid little felicity, something about “These small yearly duties which blah blah blah,” and I was stunned to recognize that in Updike we were dealing with a man so naturally verbal that he could write his fucking memoirs on a ladder!

We’re all on that ladder. Some are on their way up, some are headed down, and some are stuck for years on the same rung. But you never get anywhere if you don’t try to climb.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 25, 2017 at 7:30 am

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