Squawk Radio

Monday, June 27, 2005

Eloisa Discovers John Updike!

OK, I had heard of John Updike before. I am an English professor, and he's one of America's greatest writers of literary fiction (all those Rabbit Run books). On my endless plane trip to Florence, I found myself reading an Updike review of a spy novel and realized it was modulating into something we could all appreciate.

"To complain of thrillers, or romances, that they are less than real is to invite several counter-charges...it could be argued that all fiction is escapist: by its means we escape our own heads and lives and enter into other heads and lives. Whether the head belongs to a Hobbit in Tolkien or to one of Virginia Woolf's sensitive, externally unadventurous women does not change the nature of the escape: what gives relief and pleasure in fiction is its otherness." [The New Yorker, June 13 & 20, 2005]

Apparently Updike spent his youth lying on a red cane-back sofa in Pennsylvania, eating peanut-butter-and-raisin sandwiches, and reading "one mystery novel after another." I always feel that implicit in criticism of romance is the idea that young people "should" be reading more serious books: Virginia Woolf's suicidal heroines will hew the next generation into great writers, make them imaginative, sensitive and better people all around. John Updike is a brilliant example of the fallacy of this assumption. He remembers looking into Orwell's 1984 and being
"badly shaken by the unmistakable impression that these suffocating, inescapable worlds were the same one I lived in."

Perhaps future authors need to read books that have nothing to do with the reader's own domestic situation. I know that my eleven-year-old son, Luca, is riveted by fantasy at the moment. He lies on a white couch here in Florence, eating plums and reading genre novels for hours. And he's writing just such a novel in his spare time.

When he's not reading or writing, he likes to talk about books. Luca and I have decided who will be "offed" in the next Harry Potter book (as promised by J.K. Rawlings. Any Harry fans out there? What do you think of this: Percy goes to the dark side, and one of his parents sacrifices himself to save his life?

I suspect that the Great American Novelist, John Updike, would approve of the hours Luca and I spend discussing books that rarely touch on real life...genre novels, in other words.
Eloisa James, 2:10 AM