Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading

A bonus from Blake Bailey’s Cheever (Knopf, $35): When William Faulkner won the Nobel prize in 1949, Cheever amused himself by imagining what Hemingway would have to say about it:

“I think it’s fine that Bill Faulkner got the Nobel Prize. … The Nobel Prize is like that purse they give in Verona for the shot who bags the most sitting ducks on a clear day. There are other kinds of shooting, but they don’t give prizes for it. There is the kind of shooting that you get in the Abruzzi in the May snows and underwater shooting and the kind of lonely shooting that you have when you take your sights in a pocket-mirror and bring down a grizzly over your left shoulder but they don’t give prizes for that kind of shooting. Mr. Thomas Hardy and Mr. Herman Melville did that kind of shooting but they never got any prizes.”

The parody, please note, precedes by five years Hemingway’s own Nobel prize. As far as I know, there’s no record of Cheever’s reaction to Hemingway as laureate—no pastiche of Faulkner dissing Papa—though I like to think he would have used the phrase “outraged disbelief.”


JOHN UPDIKE’s last review for The New Yorker (March 9, $4.99)—an unwelcome thought on all counts—was of Mr. Bailey’s Cheever biography. Though he hailed Mr. Bailey’s book as “a triumph of thorough research and unblinkered appraisal,” Updike also made it clear that he found the task of reading at length about Cheever’s unhappiness a fearsome burden. Who can blame him? He was already gravely ill with the cancer that would kill him only weeks later.

How amazing, then, to find that the review, though written under a death sentence, is dotted with phrases charged with the signature Updike élan. About Cheever’s journals, for instance: “an embarrassment of riches and a richesse of embarrassment.” About Cheever’s closeted homosexuality: “Repression and expression: twin causes of complication and disharmony with others.” And again: “There was, between his shadowy ‘proclivities’ and his luminous work, an almost organic disconnect.”

Updike’s professionalism has always been a source of wonder to me—the furious work rate; the invariably high standard of the vast oeuvre; the impeccable, universal civility—but this last instance of his devotion to his craft tops it all. Hats off.


THE BRILLIANT and mischievous Hilary Mantel, musing in The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) about the famous moment when Coleridge, in the midst of composing “Kubla Khan,” was interrupted “by a person on business from Porlock,” admits to herself that most writers have occasion to pray for the diversion of an interruption, especially when they know they’re ready to start writing:

“The experienced writer says to the anguished novice: just do it; get something, anything, on to the screen or page, just establish a flow of words, and criticize them later. You give this advice but can’t always take it. You dread setting off down any one narrative path, because you know your choice will make most of the others impossible. Select one, write it, and it begins to seem in some sense pre-ordained, natural, correct; the other options fade from memory. Fear of commitment lies behind the fear of writing. Writers, as generations of jealous spouses have learned to their cost, are not naturally monogamous. We don’t want to choose; we want to keep open all the possibilities, fill a lifetime with fresh and less-than-final versions.”

I’m particularly sensitive to those remarks because I’m about to embark on a daunting project (a biography of the heroic John Updike, no less), which will interrupt, for a couple of years, the writing of the Bookie. I’m grateful to The Observer for generously allowing me to take an extended sabbatical—and I hope no one suspects that I signed up to write the book merely to avoid a weekly deadline!

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading