Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Okay, here's my rant for the evening.

I'm a huge John Updike fan, think he's written some great novels, and consider him one of the great prose champs of all time. I don't, however, think the short story is his forte. I've just started his latest novel, Villages, which has this quote from Lorrie Moore on the back cover:

It is quite possible that by dint of both quality and quantity he is American literature's greatest short-story writer, and arguably our greatest writer.

Now, I've never read any Lorrie Moore, but what this quote says to me more than anything, besides being outrageous hyperbole -- I suspect even Updike is embarrassed by it, even if his publisher isn't -- is that he's probably Moore's idol; she's probably read everything he's ever written and spent a lot of time dreaming of writing like him, and it's probably a damn good day when Lorrie Moore goes to bed at night thinking she might have gotten to his level. I understand the feeling; Updike is the kind of writer who, at his best, makes you wonder why you even bother.

The qualifier in the quote above is "by dint of both quality and quantity" -- no question he's written a lot, and a lot of what he writes is great. His criticism is fantastic too. But quantity is no standard, and on the quality level as far as novels go I don't think he's ever quite delivered, say, a Moby-Dick or a Lolita or anything in that category. And has he ever written a great short story? I devoured several collections of them years ago, and while some are memorable like "A&P" and "Pigeon Feathers" and "The Christian Roommate," I do not recall anything on the level of Melville's "Bartleby" or Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown" or Cheever's "The Country Husband" or O'Connor's "Parker's Back" or Nabokov's "Signs and Symbols." Do you?

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