Critic’s Notebook: ‘Higher Gossip’ and ‘Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts’

Higher Gossip

John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf: 502 pp., $40

Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts


William H. Gass

Alfred A. Knopf: 350 pp., $28.95

Partway through “Higher Gossip,” the seventh and final collection of reviews and occasional pieces by the late John Updike, I began to understand the problem I’ve always had with the author’s work. It’s pleasant enough — congenial, intelligent, fluidly written — but only rarely is it great. As to why this is, “Higher Gossip” offers an unintended answer by revealing not so much the range of Updike’s interests as the chatty conventionality of his ideas. The title, editor Christopher Carduff notes, reflects Updike’s sense of reviewing as “‘gossip of a higher sort’ — the dirt dished out by a trusted and stylish confidant who got to the party early, who read the book in uncorrected galleys or saw the exhibition as the last wall label was going up … ‘a wise and presentable man,’ Updike calls him, ‘in suit and tie.’” The image is telling, suggesting the limitations that define his career.

Updike was our most hit-or-miss major writer; even his best works are testaments to a kind of middle-class timidity, a reticence about the wilder edges of the world. “Rabbit, Run” is a perfect example; published in 1960, the novel was conceived in part as a response to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which, “without reading it,” Updike “resented … [for] its apparent instruction to cut loose.” The interesting thing is what this says about Updike’s conservatism, which emerges throughout the book. Even its most transgressive scene, which records its protagonist’s initiation into oral sex, is less notable for the act it details (which, by 1960, had been described by plenty of writers) than for the author’s reluctance to call it by its name.


A similar conservatism marks “Higher Gossip” — not just what it gathers but also its sensibility. This is a book meant not to challenge but to confirm, and to confirm not an aesthetic vision but a sense of fellowship. And what is the nature of this fellowship? It grows out of a fallacious premise, that criticism is the expression of a collective, as opposed to an individual, worldview. Again and again, Updike backs away from the personal, invoking it only in the realm of anecdote: reflections on getting older; asides, in takes on Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever or the Library of America’s William Maxwell retrospectives, about his relationships with both men, which make those pieces read more like reminiscences than reviews.

When it comes to literature and art (“Higher Gossip” features more than 150 pages of gallery and museum reviews, most from the New York Review of Books, where Updike was a regular art critic for nearly 20 years), there is little that’s surprising or imparts much intensity. To some extent, this is because Updike saw himself as a working writer, a “freelancer,” as he liked to put it, which means that many of these efforts read like assignments, reviews that needed to be done. That’s especially true of the book pieces, which appeared in the New Yorker between 2006 and 2009, and often seem linked by no other organizing principle than chronology.

I don’t mean to be unsympathetic; I do this for a living and I know the challenges of writing week in and week out. But what is the purpose of criticism without passion? Why collect reviews of books (Fred E. Basten’s biography of Max Factor, for instance, or Andrew Sean Greer’s “The Story of a Marriage”) that were covered, first and foremost, because they had been published? Even when Updike has a point to make, he all too often falls back on truism, which he frames as shared assumption — that idea of “higher gossip” once again.

"[A]s Morrison moves deeper into a more visionary realism,” he writes of Toni Morrison’s 2008 novel “A Mercy,” “a betranced pessimism saps her plots of the urgency that hope imparts to human adventures.” This is a lovely sentence, but is it really true? If hope is the source of both plot and urgency, then where does that leave Kafka, Beckett, Nietzsche, Malcolm Lowry?


I mention these writers because, along with a number of others, they occupy William H. Gass’ “Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts,” a collection that hints at another way of approaching the critical enterprise. Gass, like Updike, has long balanced the roles of critic and novelist, although with him, there’s a real divide in the writing — the criticism is fluid, pointed, exuberant, while the fiction is too schematic, too representative of theory and not enough of flesh and blood.

He acknowledges something of this in his essay “Retrospection”: “I am not observant of persons, so if I imagine someone whose skin is as smooth and pale as a grocery mushroom, it is the mushroom that did it.” What he’s saying is that it is language, not character, nor even the urgency of plot or hope, that moves him, that it is words and sentences, as opposed to experiences, from which his fictions tend to grow. “Critics still write of me as if my interest in words was an aberration,” Gass protests (methinks a bit too much). “Yet Adam’s task has always seemed to me to be, for a writer, the central one: to name, and in that way to know.”

“Retrospection” is a vivid effort: self-justifying, yes, but compelling as the framing of an aesthetic stance. Its purpose is to set up the suite of long essays, on Stein, Proust, Henry James and Knut Hamsun (as well as Kafka, Nietzsche and Lowry) that constitute the marrow of the book. In some ways, this is not dissimilar to “Higher Gossip,” because many of these pieces appeared in Harper’s and fulfill at least the putative function of a review.

Gass, though, is after something different, not an assessment of a book so much as a window on a writer and on himself as a reader as well. He wants us to see these texts, these creators, differently, to draw us into his perceptions, which are persuasive, distinct. His Kafka essay — hands down the best thing in the book — is narrated by Gregor Samsa, transformed into a bug because he is a bug, “treated by my parents and my sisters like a bug … [until] one day I woke to find myself more than a metaphor, more than a figure of derision and indifference.” It’s a brilliant strategy, not least because it highlights the link between Gregor and Kafka; “I was,” the former ends the essay, “insufferable — yes — I climbed my walls — yet I was literature.”


Later, while examining “the shards that form the working life of Malcohol Lowry (as Conrad Aiken called him),” Gass imagines the “Under the Volcano” author through the lens of a film adaptation ofF. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night.” Here, he makes explicit the way all of literature is, to borrow a phrase from Ishmael Reed, “more than a mainstream … [it] is an ocean,” in which texts sluice together like currents in the mind. This is another metaphor, for Gass’ engagement, the relationship of reading and worldview, although it cuts both ways, as he illustrates when refuting a historian who claims "[i]t is not too much to say” that Nietzsche inspired the SS. “It is, in fact,” Gass argues, “more than too much to say, and in a more honorable time might have provoked a duel.”

Compare that with Updike’s “A Poetics of Book Reviewing,” originally developed for his 1976 collection “Picked-Up Pieces” and reprinted near the end of “Higher Gossip.” Over the last few years, the piece has had a shadow life on the Internet, cited by reviewers and bloggers as a rules-of-the-critical-road. Its advice is, for the most part, practical (“Go easy on plot summary,” “Give enough direct quotation … so the review’s reader can form his own impression”), but there is one line that always jars me: “Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind.”

Updike is talking politics there as much as aesthetics, but more to the point is that innate conservatism again, the sense that a piece of writing can, or should, only do so much. And yet, why wouldn’t we want a review to stake out a position, to frame a territory, to fire a shot across the bow? More to the point, how could it not? This is what Gass understands: that criticism, like literature, is, or ought to be, a subversive art.

“But the books … the books disagree quietly,” he writes, arguing for a continuing conversation, one that, by its nature, challenges the status quo. And “Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions: … It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.”