Making It Look Easy: On Updike and the Myth of Difficulty
How should a writer be? Tortured and self-loathing, or coolheaded and confident? Red Smith: “Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” Flaubert: “Be regular and ordinary in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Gide: “The most beautiful things are those that madness prompts and reason writes.”
From the torment-filled biographies of our legendary writers, we (readers of literature) have pieced together a theory that those who write brilliantly suffer greatly, and—to take it a step further—that anyone wanting to write with mastery must, at some time, experience deep pain (whether at their own hands or those of fate). Virginia Woolf’s mental illness, Charles Dickens’ early poverty, Kafka’s anxiety, Edgar Allan Poe’s alcoholism, David Foster Wallace’s depression: We take these to be not the impediments to, but the wellsprings of, these writers’ work. Faced with this roundtable of acutely suffering artists, it’s hard to believe that anyone with a good and easy life can operate on an equivalent artistic plane.
But that’s exactly what John Updike, one of the great American novelists of the 20th century, did. He had a good life, and he made great art. What’s more, journalist Adam Begley’s new biography of the writer (who passed away in 2009) takes this—Updike’s easy go of it—as a central theme.
Begley begins with a prologue describing how he first encountered Updike as a child (Begley’s father and Updike were acquaintances) and, later, as a literary journalist. He reports being “amazed and delighted by [Updike’s] gracious, professional manner, and by the sly undercutting of his public, marketable self…. He wanted to let you know that his real self was elsewhere.”
In Updike, Begley goes looking for this “real self,” but finds only further proof of Updike’s professionalism, equanimity, satisfaction, and, indeed, of his good luck. Updike’s childhood in Shillington, Pennsylvania (a town he would return to repeatedly in his work), was, for the most part, a happy one. His parents, though not always pleased with each other, supported his artistic ambitions. And Updike remained proud, instead of painfully conscious, of his inconspicuous suburban upbringing. “My geography went like this,” he once wrote. “Not all children could be born, like me, at the center of the nation.”
He attended Harvard, where he became a star contributor to the university’s famous Lampoon magazine. After a year-long postgraduate fellowship in England, he went straight to work at the New Yorker. Instead of #20somethingproblems, he developed #Updikeproblems: “Despite his brilliant career at Harvard, his year in Europe, and his instant, seemingly effortless mastery of the ‘big-town folksy’ New Yorker idiom,” Begley tells us, “the young Talk writer was… uncomfortable about being cosmopolitan.” Poor thing! And yet: city-weariness is something with which anyone who’s spent more than a month in New York can sympathize.
A nagging discomfort with life in New York would eventually drive Updike to Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he and his wife and their network of couple-friends cultivated the kind of picturesque suburban lifestyle that one catches glimpses of in midcentury magazine ads for Schlitz. It was in the idyllic suburbs of New England (save for a brief detour to Boston) that Updike would remain. His final residence was a mansion in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, called Haven Hill that reminded at least one visitor (a former classmate named Austin Briggs) of Xanadu in Citizen Kane. “As daylight faded,” Briggs said, “we were left with only two or three candles, and I could scarcely see the walls of the room.”
Easy, easy: the word appears with conspicuous frequency in Begley’s book: “John’s easy schedule”; “easy confidence”; “easy urbanity”; “Easy Chair.” It’s used not only to describe Updike’s private life, but also his work: “He was an inherently disciplined and tidy writer,” Begley tell us. “He didn’t bleed onto the page”—take that, Red Smith!—“there was no wailing, no gnashing of teeth. He bottled up his pain, labeled it with scrupulous accuracy, then spooned it out in neatly measured doses.”
From his early successes at Harvard and the New Yorker, to his later racking up of literary honors—Updike won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize twice—again and again the author flouted the notion that extreme hardship is the progenitor of great writing. Though he was astonishingly attuned to difficulty of others—his books, unlike his life, are filled with pain—he didn’t seem to need to furnish his own life with suffering in order to gain access to the secrets of the human condition.
As the New York Times book critic Dwight Garner pointed out in his review of Begley’s biography, Updike wasn’t not acquainted with failure: “Princeton, to begin, turned him down.... His autobiographical first attempt at a novel, Home, was rejected by Harper…. He soon wrote 250 pages of another… before abandoning it.” He also experienced his fair share of personal troubles. When he was a teenager his mother forced their family to trade their beloved home in Shillington for an ancestral farm in an adjacent rural town—a move for which Updike seems to have never forgiven her. At several points in his life, Updike, raised Christian, experienced bouts of crippling religious anxiety. His marriage to his first wife, after repeated adulteries on both sides, ended in divorce. And, all his life, he suffered from psoriasis—a mostly benign but potentially embarrassing condition with which he afflicted several of his protagonists.
No, Updike did not pass from birth to death unscathed. But one still comes away from Begley’s biography with the distinct impression that his life was enjoyable. In looking back on the lives of the deceased, we tend to boil their infinite variations of joy and sadness down to a distinct color—the monochromatic hue of their career and character. The color of many writers’ lives is black. The color of Updike’s is much brighter, a kind of Easter-Sunday pastel—the robin’s-egg blue, perhaps, of Begley’s book’s spine.
A writer’s life is not a teachable moment, and a biography of a writer should not be read as a blueprint for how to live or make art. Just as no one should come away from the story of John Cheever’s life determined to drink himself into a brilliance-generating stupor, so no one should come away from Updike convinced that ease and grace—this Updikean shellac of professionalism—is an assured route to artistic production. Let’s face it: the guy was one of the lucky ones.
But if we can take away anything from Begley’s Updike, it’s the idea—revolutionary!—that suffering isn’t an integral part of the writing life. While the act of writing may itself be inherently difficult, the example of Updike’s biography suggests that the writing life need not be stippled with misfortune in order for vital, visceral material to come out of it.
This is not to discredit the many examples of great literature that have been inspired by the painful lives of their authors. It’s only to suggest that our theory of what leads to great art-making—biographically, at least—may be in need of revision. Indeed, in our eagerness to affirm this theory about the relationship between art and pain, we often forget about art-making’s more triumphant aspects: the freedom of it, the feeling of mastery it engenders, the ecstasy of making your worldview understood.
On this very website, the novelist Elizabeth Gilbert, responding to Philip Roth’s cranky comments about how “awful” being a writer is, wrote: “I'm going to go out on a limb here and share a little secret about the writing life that nobody likes to admit: Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it's f*cking great.”
Writing—a joyful thing? Never.
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