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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Must we still pretend to like John Updike?

Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/29/09 at 09:30 PM

For the moment, I’m going to pretend I’ve never read an entire novel by John Updike and judge his literary legacy on the basis of one paragraph singled out as representative of the awfulness of his prose.  The passage, we are told, typifies his habit “vacillat[ing] from the tedious to the atrocious,” scoring “somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Kate Chopin on the soporific scale,” and reads thus:

Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them. In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the banking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion.

There’s much Updike wrote I won’t defend—Toward the End of Time deserved the slagging it received—but for Young Master Shapiro to choose, from a hefty body of work, the opening paragraph of Rabbit Redux to bury Updike beneath should stand as the object lesson in why movement conservatives whose tastes range from Forsythe to Uris ought not be writing about literature.  I’m loath to even defend it, as it needs no defense, but here goes:

Sentence #1:

Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them.

Heavy alliteration on the “p” plays to the plodding of the pale people who emerge from the printing plant.  The sentence turns on a dime, dropping the alliteration and transforming the men into “ghosts for an instant.” That instant lasts the space of the following comma—the blink—and the blinking strips them of their ghostliness.  Needless to say, “ghostliness” describes a thing one is, not a quality one has, but Updike’s inverting the effect here—the men appear ghostly to each other as their eyes adjust to the light, but Updike would have us believe they become ghostly, only to rematerialize as daylight strips the indoor light from their bodies. 

Sentence #2:

In winter, Pine Street at this hour is dark, darkness presses down early from the mountain that hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer; but now in summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the banking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion.

More inversion: Updike opens with the dark wintry mood in a clause that hangs above everything after the semi-colon the way the mountain “hangs above the stagnant city of Brewer.” The sentence then shifts into a higher gear.  We know Updike can set off dependent clauses with a comma—he did it with “in winter”—so when he lets “but now in summer” fly, we feel the acceleration as he speeds through those conjunctive clauses right into a “frozen explosion.” Not that I want to sound like a student—“the way the author uses diction”—but look at the way the author uses diction here: the stolidity of the “granite curbs” is undermined by mica starring it; the aspirations of the small porches dashed by a pervasive grayness; &c.  Only, not &c., if you follow Shapiro’s logic

I am sorry, but reading books is what I do, and I have read literaly [sic] thousands of them. That first paragraph of Updike’s on this post is absolute garbage. It is unbelievably pretentious, it is riddled with ridiculous adjectives, and it is as though he is a bad poet trying to sound avant garde and choosing words indiscriminately out of a Thesaurus.

The misspelling, comma-splicing, German-nouning man could not be anymore wrong.  There may be one too many words up there, but I doubt they came from a thesaurus.  (Because believe you me, I know from thesaurus.)


Comments

Must we still pretend to think that wingnuts are worth responding to?

I’m sorry, Scott, that I’ve reacted with this same lecture several times now.  But this is a new era, or should be.  Even if Obama turns out to be the most vapid neoliberal imaginable, the wingnuts are no longer in power.  So why bother with them?  They never, ever had anything worth saying.  The only conceivable reason to even bother mocking them was because what they wrote was part of a noise machine that had real effects on real people.  But now?

I seriously don’t get it.  I mean, the guy waits until Updike dies, and then writes something stupid about how we don’t have to pretend to like him any more.  I guess that somewhere the “God hates fags” guy is writing about the death of a gay man and how God is going to burn him.  Do we have to refute that, too?  To go over his theology, locate where he’s misquoted the Bible, maybe correct his grammar?  Because there is always going to be some right-wing crank somewhere on the Internet looking for some outrage publicity.  And that’s all these people are now: cranks.

A case like KC Johnson’s is different, because he has academic credibility, and is worth criticizing.  But this just helps Shapiro, depresses me with the reminder that these people exist, and wastes your time.

By on 01/29/09 at 10:25 PM | Permanent link to this comment

They never, ever had anything worth saying.  The only conceivable reason to even bother mocking them was because what they wrote was part of a noise machine that had real effects on real people.  But now?

I’m of the “kick ‘em while they’re down” mindset now, precisely because they’ve always been this vapid, but we’ve been forced to take them seriously for long because, well, because they’ve hand their hands in the till.  They could’ve killed the NEA with a wink and we wouldn’t have been able to do a thing about it—but now we have a chance to write the narrative, to take culture back from those who purport to protect it.  To the refrains of “What happened to Shakespeare?” we can say, “What do you value about him, and why is he worth defending, and and and . . . ?” Showing that they value literature purely as cultural capital is a way to change the stakes of the debate.  (At least as much as one guy yelling on three blogs can claim to change the stakes of the debate.  I’m still waiting for Jonah Goldberg to offer up a counter-argument—because as comforting as Google sometimes is, I’d love a confession of ignorance.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/29/09 at 11:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The guy doesn’t even know that Updike--notoriously--supported the war in Vietnam.  He makes it sound as though Updike made Rabbit a war supporter just in order to condescend to him.

By on 01/29/09 at 11:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jonathan, these are the folks who think “nuance“ is an insult.  (Rich, don’t click that link.) Can’t expect them to know, read, or consider history important.  After all, now a liberal, always have been a liberal . . .

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/30/09 at 12:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"now we have a chance to write the narrative, to take culture back from those who purport to protect it.”

I guess that I just disagree, seriously.  If you want to take the culture back, you argue with someone like Bauerlein, who, again, has some credibility.  This is The Virgin Ben.  His only ability to do anything with the narrative came from his connections to people with actual power.  Now that they have none, he has none.  There is no debate that this is possible with him, because he has no ideas and never had anything to do with ideas.  Just as Jonah Goldberg will never offer up a counter-argument, he will never respond as you’d like him to respond.

And “showing that they value literature purely as cultural capital”—how?  It’s already obvious to anyone who can possibly be convinced.  All they have to do is read the original to see that.

And the problem is, it’s not really kicking them when they’re down.  The only thing that they have, that can carry them through this period of limited wingnut welfare, is attention, preferably attention in the form of condemnations from liberal academics without any power.  Why give it to them?

By on 01/30/09 at 01:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

See, now, this all puts me in the rotten position of feeling as if my lack of interest in anything of Updike’s is part of some deep, unconscious wingnuttery, you know, *inside* me.

By on 01/30/09 at 02:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, it seems like you have a tendency to post something like this whenever someone is disrespectfully criticized or slandered after their death (Wallace, Gilliard, now Updike).  It seems like this kind of disrespect sticks in your craw and compels you to respond, rather than it being part of a grand strategy.  And I think that Rich is right, as he has been in the past, to say that there will always be people saying disrespectful things of this kind, that all they want is attention, and that once the joke has gotten old (sometime around 2005, at least for me), there is nothing to be gained by giving it to them.

By tomemos on 01/30/09 at 03:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been thinking about pulling together a John Updike post, but have been too busy with other stuff.  I’ll try and get something down at the weekend, maybe.  But I’d say there is some point in this sort of response, or so it seems to me.  Updike is so very good at what he does, and his limitations are so obvious (and have such little bearing on what he’s actually doing) that I’ve always been puzzled by the sorts of condescension he received from critics and academics ... in the academy Cheever was always a much more credible figure to talk about than Updike, for instance.

A coupla things.

1.  Looking through the list here it strikes me that I’ve read every single one of his novels, with the exceptions of The Poorhouse Fair, which I’ve never happened across, The Widows of Eastwick, which I’ve been waiting to come out in paperback, and Marry Me which, coincidentally, I found in a charity shop not long ago and am presently in the middle of reading.  I’ve read quite a number of his short stories too.  He is the man when it comes to writing a certain kind of short story.  I can’t think of many contemporary writers I could say that of.

2.  I would be prepared to state the case for the defense where Towards The End of Time is concerned: a much better book than its critics allow, I think (critics like David Foster Wallace).

3. For a man who was so consummate and brilliant a prose stylist, with such an eye for detail and such a facility with arresting and Keatsian description, I’m kind of relieved that his poetry sucks as much as it does.  I’m relieved because whilst I can do prose I can’t seem to write good poetry either, and it’s heartening to think I’m not alone.

4. I wonder if Language Log has ever posted on the recent idiom ‘I know from X’ instead of ‘I know (a lot) about X.’

By Adam Roberts on 01/30/09 at 07:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You gotta love how Shapiro also manages to trash Hardy, Chopin, and 2001: A Space Odyssey in that post.

By on 01/30/09 at 08:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s still cool for ultra-lefists to dislike Updike, I hope. I liked “Pigeon Feathers” a lot back when it came out, but when I tried to read it it seemed unbearably overwritten. The whole project of writing not completely unsympathetically about boring, annoying people, trying to be the John Steinbeck or Erskine Caldwell of the suburbs while making it endurable with high style, classical references, etc., like Flaubert, just fails. The fact that Flaubert despised all of his characters is what redeems his work. It would have been inhuman to treat people like that sympathetically, which is what Updike did.

Note: I’ve been saying these things for a few years, but I did wait until the body was cold (about 48 hours, as I understand).

By John Emerson on 01/30/09 at 10:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, there would certainly be a point in a response to an actual critic who had written something, um, worth responding to.

Here, the last time I suggested a fake course in how to read something, the person thought I was being all condescending, but you and Scott know me well enough to know that this is just my way of explaining a train of thought—if you want a fairly simple decision procedure on whether to respond, try this:

1.Read this Michael Berube post.  Note especially:

“And how should one respond to such a provocation?  Well, another man might’ve been angry, and another man might’ve been hurt.  And another man might try to ignore it (that never works) and still another might’ve done the Grover Furr-patented “Horowitz = Goebbels!!1!!” dance.  Me, I’ve gradually decided that the way to deal with vile smears like this is to ridicule the wingnuts who utter them.”

2.  You’ve run into something that you might want to respond to.  Search Google for the person’s name plus, let’s say, “Sadly, no”.  Does the person have a silly nickname, such as “The Doughy Pantload”, “The Paste Eater”, “The Virgin Ben”, “The Marble Douchebag”, or “Patterico”?  (Oops, last one was self applied.) Then guess what?  The communal wisdom of the Internet has already worked out for you that this is a non-serious person who will never ever respond with any trace of intellectual honesty.  This is a wingnut.

3.  Let’s say they have no nickname.  Well, read what they wrote.  Is it self-evidently silly and nasty, like an attack on the stronger part of Updike’s writing just after Updike’s death?  This is a wingnut.

4.  Sadly, (remembering step 1) your options in response have dwindled to mockery.  Now, I’d add to what Berube wrote by what I wrote in my comments above—now that the political situation has changed, ignoring them is a viable option.  But if you choose not to ignore them, your only real response is to mock.  Which doesn’t mean treating them seriously enough to e.g. analyze a paragraph of Updike’s.  That only validates what they wrote, as if it were not obviously crap thrown by a monkey.

By on 01/30/09 at 12:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John Updike famously read Tom Wolfe out of the canon ("fails to be exquisite” was the money line). I wouldn’t expect Ben Shapiro to be aware of this, despite the literaly thousands of books he’s read. But wingnuts love Tom Wolfe--he is perhaps the literary Rush Limbaugh, about whom no criticism is tolerated-- undoubtedly have read Wolfe’s histrionic, petulant reply (collected in Hooking Up, iirc), and perhaps this is why none of them shows up in Shapiro’s comments to defend Updike, a writer generally admired by non-philistine conservatives in such numbers as they exist.

By on 01/30/09 at 02:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wonder if Language Log has ever posted on the recent idiom ‘I know from X’ instead of ‘I know (a lot) about X.’

Isn’t this an old kinda-Yiddishism? Or ‘I don’t know you from Adam’ malappropriated (my maybe-neologism for the day, ‘to take a phrase out of context in order to make fun of Jews’)?

By Wax Banks on 01/30/09 at 02:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ll just bet that Updike’s dis of Tom Wolfe is relevant here. To be sure, Shapiro himself is probably unaware of the controversy, his reading of literaly thousands of books notwithstanding. But Tom Wolfe is the Rush Limbaugh of letters in a half-dozen ways, and one of them is that his wingnut fanbois will not countenance an unkind word about him. Thus Wolfe is invoked in the second comment to Shapiro’s post. Yet Updike goes mostly undefended, despite being generally admired by non-philistine conservatives in such numbers as they exist.

By on 01/30/09 at 04:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I love what kth just did.  It’s like two seperate kths from different universes somehow posted comments on the same blog.

By on 01/30/09 at 05:03 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems like this kind of disrespect sticks in your craw and compels you to respond, rather than it being part of a grand strategy.

Stop telling me things I should’ve realized myself.  Makes me feel like I’m in therapy.

I wonder if Language Log has ever posted on the recent idiom ‘I know from X’ instead of ‘I know (a lot) about X.’

As Wax Banks says, it’s an old locution, not a new one; oddly, though, it comes both from old Jews and old Southerners.  Same goes for that other odd locution, replacing “that” with “what.”

The Wallace review is priceless:

In case this sounds like a harsh summary, here’s hard statistical evidence of just how much a “departure” for Mr. Updike this novel really is:

Total number of pages about the Sino-American war—causes, duration, casualties: 0.75;

Total number of pages about deadly mutant metallobioforms: 1.5;

Total number of pages about flora around Turnbull’s home, plus fauna, weather and how his ocean view looks in different seasons: 86;

Total number of pages about Mexico’s repossession of the U.S. Southwest: 0.1;

Total number of pages about Ben Turnbull’s penis and his various feelings about it: 7.5;

Total number of pages about the prostitute’s body, with particular attention to sexual loci: 8.75;

Total number of pages about golf: 15;

Total number of pages of Ben Turnbull saying things like “I want women to be dirty” and “We are condemned, men and women, to symbiosis” and “She was a choice cut of meat and I hoped she held out for a fair price” and “The sexual parts are fiends, sacrificing everything to that aching
point of contact”: 36.5.

Sigh.  I look forward to the Updike post, whenever you get around to it.  I thought about pulling together something more substantial, but all my Updike is a storage unit.  I haven’t read all 25 of his novels, but I burnt through a good 15 before Towards the End of Time stopped me in my tracks. 

And the problem is, it’s not really kicking them when they’re down.  The only thing that they have, that can carry them through this period of limited wingnut welfare, is attention, preferably attention in the form of condemnations from liberal academics without any power.  Why give it to them?

Rich, this doesn’t not make sense, but I tend to believe there’s a substantial chunk of the population who are likely to be persuaded yea or nay on the basis of apparent expertise.  I’m no Updike expert, but I’m literary enough to be able to demonstrate why blanket dismissals such as this one are idiotic.  (Plus, as tomemos said, I have a complex.)

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/30/09 at 05:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I know “psychologizing” has gotten a bad rap here of late, and I admit it’s not the most mature conversational tactic.  It just struck me as meaningful that recent death seems to be the pattern in this kind of post (add the Chuck Adkins post to the ones I mentioned above).  To some extent, picking on the most defenseless kind of person there is--a dead one--makes one feel compelled to mount the defense oneself.  There, I’m doing it again.

By tomemos on 01/30/09 at 07:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I wasn’t being glib there, tomemos: I honestly hadn’t realized my knee jerked in this particular way, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can only respond but damn does it ever.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 01/30/09 at 07:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott,
I have a response to this at my blog, too long to include in a comment.  You probably won’t agree with my argument.

It sounds like you are defending Updike just because he is “literary” and whatshisname evidently doesn’t have a literary bone in his body.  I don’t think the paragraph actually is very good out of context and you imply it is.

By bianca steele on 01/30/09 at 08:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi,

“Thomas Hardy...soporific”????

Your a maroon.

Have a nice day,
Antti

By on 01/30/09 at 10:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Toward the End of Time deserved the slagging it received...”

Oh my. I happen to think that book is a marvel (and Ms. Atwood, no Slouch of Sci Fi, happens to agree; DFW’s pan was clearly oedipal). If Olivia Butler had managed to write Toward the End of Time, her fans would’ve been hunger-striking in the King of Sweden’s driveway.

And I don’t think that “Men emerge pale from the little printing plant at four sharp, ghosts for an instant, blinking, until the outdoor light overcomes the look of constant indoor light clinging to them,” and so forth, even requires breaking down into its finest constituent bits for any native English speaker with an “ear” and (very importantly) an *imagination* to smile at the passage with pleasure.

Updike was far from infallible (like, you know, Bolano: cough), but what he did that got him in trouble was indulge in blatant displays of Talentism (worse, to some critics, in the end, than all the other census-question-plus-an-Isms combined). Everyone, as we know, is required to write in that no-nonsense, aw-shucks, meat-n-taters way that an American (and, increasingly, a Brit) won’t feel mocked by… unpretentious writers with Lexuses who happen to do it in just the right way often ascribe the skill to having apprenticed on a *newspaper*, dontchaknow.

Sometimes, Updike’s vagina-describing metaphors ran a little too rampant, but so what?

By Steven Augustine on 01/31/09 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

”...all my Updike is a storage unit.”

This was a slip but it’s pretty cool, actually.

By Steven Augustine on 01/31/09 at 11:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, all my awesomeness is accidental.  (Why else cultivate such clumsiness?) That said, in about nine hours I’ll post something that responds neither to your comment nor bianca steele’s post—because I’m saving that for the second of what tomorrow’s post is the first of.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 02/01/09 at 01:20 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott:

Looking forward to the next two (or more?) movements…

By Steven Augustine on 02/01/09 at 07:12 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You forgot to call Shapiro out on his attempted appropriation of Mark Twain: if you’ve read Twain on the Phillipines and our country’s misadventures there, you can imagine what he would write about Iraq.

By on 02/02/09 at 01:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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