Think of this as a do-not-read list
At HIS blog, ABC of Reading, Thomas McGonigle, one of our contributors, has posted an item about writers he’d like to see less from on forthcoming publisher catalog lists. What would they get in return? The post suggests having George Soros establish a fund to compensate these writers for their silence.
Provocative, yes. Among many big-name writers on the list (Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney and Francine Prose), prominent near the top is John Updike, who has received his share of fairly lukewarm reviews in the last decade. In fact, he’s received quite a few. I looked around. Of his 2006 novel, “Terrorist,” for instance, James Wood wrote in the New Republic:
“It is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book. Despite all the Koranic homework, there is a sense that what is alien in Islam to a Westerner remains alien to John Updike. What he has discovered, yet again, is merely the generalized fluid of God-plus-sex that has run throughout all his novels.”
Adam Begley wrote in the New York Observer that Updike’s 2004 book, “Villages,” was too generic; the 2002 novel, “Seek My Face,” was tedious to Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor. Los Angeles Times critic Susan Salter Reynolds wrote of Updike’s 2000 book, “Licks of Love”: “The stories are painstakingly written; effort shows on every page. There’s too much detail, too much retelling of the characters’ most ordinary thoughts. Most of the stories . . . feel unfinished; summarily ended, as though Updike simply shrugged.”
There are many who admire Updike’s work, and I’m definitely among them, but the common thread in the criticisms is that he writes too often. This fall, in fact, he will publish “The Widows of Eastwick,” which picks up the story told in “The Witches of Eastwick.” I wouldn’t dare to tell a giant of American letters not to publish any more, even if Soros said “yes” to the don’t-write funding idea, but McGonigle’s post made me think: If there were a little more time between Updike books -- say, three years rather than two -- perhaps there’d be more room at the bigger publishers for such writers as Gary Amdahl, who are doing exciting things.
-- Nick Owchar
Face it, you’re not F. Scott Fitzgerald
HE WAS a notoriously poor speller; it’s one of those endearing details in the legend of F. Scott Fitzgerald. But none of us is a Fitzgerald, so to work on the mechanics of your writing, you can get started with Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which Broadway Books is set to publish this month, by bestselling author Bill Bryson.
Despite its design -- the terms are arranged alphabetically -- Bryson calls it “a personal collection, built up over 30 years as a writer and editor . . . so inevitably -- inescapably -- it reflects my own interests, experiences, and blind spots.”
Among such blind spots are those traps familiar to anyone writing about literature (it’s Stephen Dedalus, not Daedalus) or medicine (it’s Down syndrome, not Down’s syndrome). There are also plenty of words that writers misapply: “crass,” for instance, isn’t just tasteless -- it’s “stupid and grossly ignorant to the point of insensitivity.”
“A thing must be pretty bad to be crass,” Bryson writes.
“Enormity” doesn’t refer to size but to the wickedness of something. I’m guilty of misusing that one. An appendix on punctuation points out the many ways that writers are tripped up by commas.
Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors is a good read, strange as that may sound: It has been -- how shall I say? -- helpful to me in composing this sentence.
The meaning of ‘Prince Caspian’
Last WEEK, my daughter, Sophie, and I saw “Prince Caspian,” the new “Chronicles of Narnia” film. Sophie is 9, and she had just read the book a couple of weeks ago; no sooner had the movie started than she turned to me and whispered, “They left a lot of stuff out.”
I was willing to take her word for it because, if truth be told, I don’t remember many of the details; I read the Narnia books a long time ago, when I was Sophie’s age. But the film was pretty good, I thought -- fast-paced, nicely constructed . . . until, that is, the last 20 minutes when Aslan saves the day.
This has always been my problem with “The Chronicles of Narnia,” the way Aslan is so often absent, until, after 1,000 years or so of suffering, he decides to step in and make everything right. I understand the metaphor, understand C.S. Lewis’ notion of faith and Christian humility, but (without getting into theology), I think it’s a poor narrative device. What kind of beneficent force is Aslan, when he’s so often negligent? And what does it do to the human agency of the characters that they get bailed out by this external power, rather than having to work things out (or not) themselves?
Sophie had a different issue. Although she liked the movie, she found its at-times-relentless violence off-putting; it’s more fun to read, she told me, because you imagine what’s going on in the story for yourself.
Yes, I thought, that’s it exactly. No external agency.
-- David L. Ulin