More Matter: Essays and Criticism
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More Matter: Essays and Criticism

by John Updike

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In this collection of nonfiction pieces, John Updike gathers his responses to nearly two hundred invitations into print, each “an opportunity to make something beautiful, to find within oneself a treasure that would otherwise remain buried.” Introductions, reviews, and humorous essays, paragraphs on New York, religion, and lust—here is “more


In this collection of nonfiction pieces, John Updike gathers his responses to nearly two hundred invitations into print, each “an opportunity to make something beautiful, to find within oneself a treasure that would otherwise remain buried.” Introductions, reviews, and humorous essays, paragraphs on New York, religion, and lust—here is “more matter” commissioned by an age that, as the author remarks in his Preface, calls for “real stuff . . . not for the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction.” Still, the novelist’s shaping hand, his gift for telling detail, can be detected in many of these literary considerations. Books by Edith Wharton, Dawn Powell, John Cheever, and Vladimir Nabokov are incisively treated, as are biographies of Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth II, and Helen Keller. As George Steiner observed, Updike writes with a “solicitous, almost tender intelligence. The critic and the poet in him . . . are at no odds with the novelist; the same sharpness of apprehension bears on the object in each of Updike’s modes.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
More Matter attests to Mr. Updike’s remarkable versatility and to his ardent drive to turn all his observations into glittering, gossamer prose. . . . In his strongest pieces, Mr. Updike’s awesome pictorial powers of description combine with a rigorous, searching intelligence to produce essays of enormous tactile power and conviction.”—The New York Times
“Our most productive critic, certainly; and also, as it happens, our finest . . . In this wide-ranging collection . . . there are both matter and art enough to satisfy the most demanding reader.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
More Matter will leave even his closest followers amazed. . . . Updike can write about anything, in any form and at any length, and do it with intelligence and knowledge and grace and agility and wit—and oh, the prose.”—Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
William H. Pritchard
It would be a mistake to think that [Updike] gives any less of himself, is any less fully engaged and serious, in his essays and criticism...Even more than in previous collections, the range is astonishing...
NY Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Many American writers this century have been called brilliant and accomplished, but Updike is the real thing, as this huge collection of personal essays, social commentary, book reviews, introductions, interviews and occasional pieces amply attests. It is astonishing that a volume of nearly 200 pieces--most written for such intellectual venues as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, but some penned for the mass audiences of Newsweek and USAir Magazine--represents only eight years' work at a time when Updike was producing roughly a novel every two years. But perhaps even more surprising is his range, depth and originality. Segueing freely from the latest biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the nature of evil to cars, cartoons and burglar alarms, these essays are bursting with sentiments and observations that defy ideology or neat categorization. Just when you think Updike is a cultural conservative (he deems young men's haircuts "hostile," mocks Borges and debates the serial comma), he defends Jacques Derrida (against Camille Paglia, no less). Just when you think he is refined and cautious (shaving the metaphysical line between "freedom" and "equality"), he turns irreverent (referring to Helen Keller jokes and "God in a lilac shortie nightgown" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). Some pieces are prophetic, such as his comments in 1996 on our fascination with the Titanic disaster. Unlike most journalism, Updike's occasional writing is so exquisite as to repay multiple readings. And not least among the many virtues of this book, the 50th of his career, is its sheer fact of convenient assembly. BOMC alternate selection. (Sept.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
It's always fun to hear from Updike, even when we get bits and pieces like these essays, criticism, addresses, etc., but what is noteworthy here is that this is Updike's 50th book. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The popular American writer's fifth collection of assorted prose, most of it first published in over the past eight years. They include essays, criticism, addresses, introductions, humor, and paragraphs about himself and his work. He considers many particular authors, but also general literary topics such as the nature of evil, the philosophical contents of novels, and the wreck of the . Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Bruce Bawer
Indeed, there is much to be said for this book, whose author — a working man of letters in the nineteenth-century mold — has rarely if ever appeared to be in thrall to literary trends, to covet the kind of media celebrity that some other writers of his generation have sought, or to use his criticism to settle scores. If aspiring writers may not find in these pages the foremost living model of critical candor, courage, and passion, they can nonetheless learn a great deal from Updike about how to shape a sentence and read a text. They can also learn the value of having an eye for particulars...
The Hudson Review
Kirkus Reviews
A strong gathering of essays, criticism, addresses, introductions, and autobiographical commentaries written and published over the past eight years. "Writing criticism," Updike explains in an earlier collection of essays and occaisonal pieces, "is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea." And so it may be, but plying the estuaries of art and literature in the Updike dinghy remains a pleasure of considerable magnitude. The new book takes its title from Queen Gertrude's admonition to Polonius: "More matter, with less art." Luckily, Updike doesn't stint on matter or art. Like its predecessor volumes, More Matter draws its appeal from Updike's shrewd judgment and unique verbal sparkle, but also from his cosmopolitan range. He moves easily from Kierkegaard to Lincoln and Melville; from Edmond Wilson to Camille Paglia or Joseph Brodsky or Junichiro Tanizaki. The list could go on for quite some time; this book is nearly 1,000 pages long. The abiding Updike themes of sex and religion and the manifold perplexities of American life are in abundant evidence, but a new one appears alongside them: it is old age. Updike is now 67 and has during the 1990s begun to ruminate about what it means to be old and how the US has changed during his lifetime. He touches on it frequently, as in an essay on the liberating suntan culture of the 1950s and '60s: "The young married beauties with whom my then wife and I spent great chunks of summer sunning on a broad beach north of Boston have in the subsequent decades gone from being nut-brown Pocahontases to looking like Sitting Bull, with a melancholy facial fissure for every broken treaty." The key word here is"melancholy," for it is the mood that stimulates a good many of Updike's insights throughout this superior collection. Updike declares in his preface that More Matter will be his last book of collected criticism. Let us hope he changes his mind.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.17(h) x 1.57(d)

Read an Excerpt

"More matter, with less art," Queen Gertrude advises Polonius; she sounds like a modern magazine editor. The appetite in the print trade is presently for real stuff — the dirt, the poop, the nitty-gritty — and not for the obliquities and tenuosities of fiction. A writer is almost never asked to write a story, let alone a poem; instead he or she is invited to pen introductions, reviews, and personal essays, preferably indiscreet. (Pen them, then fax them. Instant modemed communication and rapidly overlapping semes are à la mode.) Human curiosity, the abettor and stimulant of the fiction surge between Robinson Crusoe's adventures and Constance Chatterley's, has become ever more literal-minded and impatient with the proxies of the imagination. Present taste runs to the down-home divulgences of the talk show — psychotherapeutic confession turned into public circus — and to investigative journalism that, like so many heat-seeking missiles, seeks out the intimate truths, the very genitalia, of Presidents and princesses. It is as if, here at the end of a millennium, time is too precious to waste on anything but such central, perennially urgent data. And so it has come to pass that, in the 1990s, as I turned sixty and then reached sixty-two (senior discount at the movies!) and then passed retirement age, instead of devoting myself wholly to the elaboration of a few final theorems and dreams couched in the gauzy genres of make-believe, I have cranked out, in response to many a plausible request, the mass of more or less factual matter, of assorted prose, which Knopf has herewith heroically, indulgently printed and bound, my fifth such collection and — dare we hope? — my last.

In this terminal decade the editor of my favorite magazine, The New Yorker, became Tina Brown. It has been my bewildering professional experience to see the editors of that revered journal go from being much older, wiser heads, gray and authoritative, with a shamanistic mystique, to being all — with the friendly exception of Roger Angell — much younger than I, young enough in most cases to be my sons and daughters, with an adult child's willful and mysterious fondness for loud music, late nights, unheard-of celebrities, and electronic innovation. However, Ms. Brown's demeanor toward me, during her tenure, was engagingly benign, and I tried, albeit somewhat arthritically, to dance to her tune — contributing, for instance, to the back-page "Shouts and Murmurs" which she revived from the days of Alexander Woollcott, and answering her call to write about Lana Turner and Gene Kelly, whose videos I was nostalgically happy to view. The magazine's books department passed, through a flurry of interim managers, from the relaxed custody of the late, gravel-voiced Edith Oliver to the more scholastic, tremulously sensitive care of Henry Finder. The kind of books, mostly fiction from Europe and other exotic realms, that I used to be assigned for review yielded to meatier fare, like biographies of such imposing figures as Isaac Newton, Abraham Lincoln, Queen Elizabeth II, and (my last assignment before Ms. Brown's abrupt departure for even greener pastures) Helen Keller. These august subjects subtended areas of knowledge shadowy to me, but the late William Shawn — whose blessed memory has itself recently undergone some biographical elaboration — made it a principle not to assign books to specialists in the field, so I was already habituated, as a reviewer, to being at sea and steering by starlight. Also, on their own intellectual initiative, the new editors composed, in the hope that I might become a Critic at Large, a few bouquets of related titles for me to admire and address; in this volume's section "Medleys," the first two conjunctions were my idea, and the next two theirs. Presciently, they had me tackle the Titanic a year before the movie swept all before it. Another ambitious assignment, on Edith Wharton and her cinematic spinoffs, took me uneasily into territory already thoroughly patrolled by Anthony Lane. He and I bumped heads in the dark of a midtown screening room and I beat a quick retreat.

Though The New Yorker has always been scrupulously, tirelessly edited, requests to write to a certain specified length and on a certain timely topic much less obtruded upon a writer's consciousness in the days when William Shawn sustained the editorial illusion of a full and ghostly freedom. Reviews were allowed to run until the reviewer felt depleted; now one aims at a shorter length of nine hundred words or a much longer of around three thousand. Snappy or expansive, take your pick. My reviewing habit, hard to break, was to quote extensively; just as the impossibly ideal map would be the same size as the territory mapped, the ideal review would quote the book in its entirety, without comment. In a strange way, the passing of the Cold War has made it harder to frame a literary opinion; the polarities of right versus left and red versus free lent a tension to aesthetic questions miles removed from the Manichaean global struggle. Fiction from the Communist world was inevitably considered from a political angle, but that of Europe and the Americas also crackled with miniature versions of the global clash, the debate, carried on country by country, between Marx and Adam Smith on how one should live. Economic realities, in the form of declining ad revenues, had at last overtaken The New Yorker, which for so long seemed exempt from the crasser considerations. Her model for renovation, Tina Brown let it be known, was the magazine edited by Harold Ross — a peppier, saucier, and succincter publication that proclaimed itself not for the old lady from Dubuque. The old lady from Dubuque had become, over the years, one of the faithful subscribers, and then she got doddery. That a doddery contributor like myself might still have a part to play in the redesigned, more sharply angled pages was a comforting thought. I fell in love with the magazine as a child, from what seemed an immense distance. Appearing under the same Rea Irvin-designed title-type and department logos as White and Thurber and Cheever and those magical cartoons was for me a dream come true. It still is.

Meet the Author

John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
March 18, 1932
Date of Death:
January 27, 2009
Place of Birth:
Shillington, Pennsylvania
Place of Death:
Beverly Farms, MA
A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England

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