It’s surprising how quickly a writer’s death provides a seismic reading for anyone who had taken an interest in his work. The news of Updike’s death really startled me; he had written so well and so importantly for so long and until so recently that his absence is hard to contemplate. Something is missing. I had a spell of indignation as I thought of the nonentities who won the Nobel Prize while he was eligible through being alive. Now he’s disqualified! Terrible.
I met Updike a few times and today have been looking back on those encounters, baffling one and all. Harry Crews and I had won awards at the American Academy and found ourselves pressed against the wall of a large room staring across substantial space at a large collegial group of Northeastern writers who seemed to know their way around the place. Crews was content to remain, but I wandered haplessly into no man’s land, where Bernard Malamud felt sorry for me and led me to the group in the middle of the room, where he introduced me all round, and to John Updike, who peered at me and said, “We don’t know who you are.” Well, I got over it and kept reading Updike, admiring his daring, the high finish of his prose, his extraordinary erudition, and, sometimes in the face of some quite nasty critical attention, his undaunted commitment to his work. As a regular and accessible commentator on art and literature, he hasn’t had an equal since Edmund Wilson. It is impossible to imagine a less complacent major writer.
I don’t know if some assonance is suggested by noting that I felt the same sort of blow at the death of Rabbit Angstrom, an unwillingness to let him go. I sent Updike a note to this effect and got a warm reply in which he expressed some mystification that everyone was so attached to Rabbit. My translation suggests he wasn’t comfortable with this august tetralogy towering over the rest of his work. But that’s what happened.
Thomas McGuane, January 28, New Yorker