More Matter: Essays and Criticism

Overview

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 ...
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Overview

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.”
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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.
Booknews
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 (booknews.com)
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780449006283
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 928
  • Sales rank: 1,423,201
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 1.57 (d)

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.

Biography

With an uncommonly varied oeuvre that includes poetry, criticism, essays, short stories, and novels, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner John Updike helped to change the face of late-20th-century American literature.

Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954. Following a year of study in England, he joined the staff of The New Yorker, establishing a relationship with the magazine that continued until his death in January, 2009. For more than 50 years, he lived in two small towns in Massachusetts that inspired the settings for several of his stories.

In 1958, Updike's first collection of poetry was published. A year later, he made his fiction debut with The Poorhouse Fair. But it was his second novel, 1960's Rabbit, Run, that forged his reputation and introduced one of the most memorable characters in American fiction. Former small-town basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom struck a responsive chord with readers and critics alike and catapulted Updike into the literary stratosphere.

Updike would revisit Angstrom in 1971, 1981, and 1990, chronicling his hapless protagonist's jittery journey into undistinguished middle age in three melancholy bestsellers: Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest. A concluding novella, "Rabbit Remembered," appeared in the 2001 story collection Licks of Love.

Although autobiographical elements appear in the Rabbit books, Updike's true literary alter ego was not Harry Angstrom but Harry Bech, a famously unproductive Jewish-American writer who starred in his own story cycle. In between -- indeed, far beyond -- his successful series, Updike went on to produce an astonishingly diverse string of novels. In addition, his criticism and short fiction became popular staples of distinguished literary publications.

Good To Know

Updike first became entranced by reading when he was a young boy growing up on an isolated farm in Pennsylvania. Afflicted with psoriasis and a stammer, he escaped his self-consciousness by immersing himself in drawing, writing, and reading.

An accomplished artist, Updike accepted a one-year fellowship to study painting at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts at Oxford University. He decided to attend Harvard University because he was a big fan of the school's humor magazine, The Harvard Lampoon.

One of the most respected authors of the 20th century, Updike won every major literary prize in America, including the Guggenheim Fellow, the Rosenthal Award, the National Book Award in Fiction, the O. Henry Prize, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Union League Club Abraham Lincoln Award, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, and the National Medal of the Arts.

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    1. Also Known As:
      John Hoyer Updike (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 18, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Shillington, Pennsylvania
    1. Date of Death:
      January 27, 2009
    2. Place of Death:
      Beverly Farms, MA

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.

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Table of Contents

Preface
Large Matters
Matters of State
Freedom and Equality: Two American Bluebirds 3
The State of the Union, as of March 1992 16
Letter to a Baby Boomer 22
The Fifties 25
Gender and Health
The Disposable Rocket 30
Women Dancing 33
Get Thee Behind Me, Suntan 37
V 41
Lust 42
The Song of Solomon 46
Literature
Religion and Literature 50
Fiction: A Dialogue 63
Print: A Dialogue 65
A Different Ending 70
The Burglar Alarm 72
The Glittering City 79
Geographical, Calendrical, Topical
On the Edge 97
People Wrapped to Go 100
One Big Bauble 102
The Twelve Terrors of Christmas 106
That Syncing Feeling 107
Paranoid Packaging 109
Hostile Haircuts 111
Glad Rags 113
Addressing the Scandal Glut 114
Manifesto 116
Car Talk 118
The Gentlemen of Summer 120
Bodies Beautiful 121
Golf in the Land of the Free 123
The Vineyard Remembered 128
The Sun the Other Way Around 130
The Cold 133
Matter under Review
Introductions
To "The Seducer's Diary," a chapter of Either/Or 139
To The Complete Shorter Fiction of Herman Melville 144
To The Age of Innocence 165
To Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green 170
To The Best American Short Stories 1984 178
To Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews 187
To Writers on Writers 194
To Heroes and Anti-Heroes, photographs by the Magnum Cooperative 196
To The Art of Mickey Mouse 202
To My Well-Balanced Life on a Wooden Leg 210
American Past Masters
Reworking Wharton 214
The Key-People 231
Laughter from the Yokels 242
Stevens as Dutchman 250
Wilson as Cape Codder 252
The Critic in Winter 253
An Ohio Runaway 260
Happiness, How Sad 268
Cheever on the Rocks 279
Sirin's Sixty-Five Shimmering Short Stories 287
North American Contemporaries
Recruiting Raw Nerves 291
Doctorpoe 299
Excellent Humbug 299
The Good Book as Cookbook 305
Him and Who? 311
Mayhem at the Hospital 312
Tummy Trouble in Tinseltown 314
Soap and Death in America 317
Awriiiighhhhhhhht! 320
Stones into Bread 325
Barney Looks Back 331
People Fits 334
Overseas
Mandarins 338
Proust Died for You 344
Camus Made New 346
Omniumgatherum 347
Man Is an Island 348
Muriel Goes to the Movies 352
God Save Ingushetia 355
"Live" Spelled Backwards 358
On the Edge of the Post-Human 363
Nightmares and Daymares 365
Undelivered Remarks upon Awarding the 1992 GPA Book Award in Dublin 366
Idle Thoughts of a Toiling Tiler 370
Dark Walker 371
Angels in Holland 371
Vagueness on Wheels, Dust on a Skirt 374
Life Was Elsewhere 380
Of Sickened Times 386
Gender Benders 394
Other Continents
A Woman's Continent 397
A Heavy World 405
Between Montparnasse and Mt. Pelee 409
Nobody Gets Away with Everything 411
Shadows and Gardens 415
Mountain Miseries 420
Two Anglo-Indian Novels 425
A Note on Narayan 432
Medleys
Glasnost, Honne, and Conquistadores 434
Posthumous Output 442
Novel Thoughts 453
Elusive Evil 464
Biographies
The Properties of Things 481
Such a Sucker as Me 489
Man of Secrets 499
Not Quite Adult 509
Large for Her Years 516
Cubism's Marketeer 524
Smiling Bob 530
This Side of Coherence 538
The Man Within 552
Shirley Temple Regina 561
Things As They Are
An Undeciphered Residue 571
At the Hairy Edge of the Possible 578
Things, Things 586
Box Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar Code 591
The Flamingo-Pink Decade 595
The Liberation of the Legs 598
She's Got Personality 603
Among Canines 610
Fine Points 611
Oh, It Was Sad 621
2000, Here We Come 632
Visible Matter
Movies
The Old Movie Houses 641
Samson and Delilah and Me 644
Legendary Lana 645
M.M. in Brief 656
The Vargas Girl 658
Genial, Kinetic Gene Kelly 660
Photos
The Domestic Camera 667
A Bookish Boy 671
An Ecstatic State 674
A Woman's Burden 676
Descent of an Image 677
Introduction to The Writer's Desk 681
Introduction to The First Picture Book - Everyday Things for Babies 684
Facing Death 692
Nadar's Swift Tact 696
Art
Fast Art 703
The Revealed and the Concealed 708
Fun Furniture 716
Acts of Seeing 721
Big, Bright, and Bendayed 725
A Case of Monumentality 731
Verminous Pedestrians and Car-Tormented Streets 733
Funny Faces 740
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling 749
The Frick 750
Personal Matters
Updike and I 757
Me and My Books 758
The Short Story and I 762
Introduction to Self-Selected Stories 767
Foreword to Love Factories 770
Foreword to "Brother Grasshopper" 773
Note on "A Sandstone Farmhouse" 774
Note on "Playing with Dynamite" 775
Foreword to "The Women Who Got Away" 776
Note on "My Father on the Verge of Disgrace" 776
Karl Shapiro 776
Three New Yorker Stalwarts(William Shawn, William Maxwell, Brendan Gill) 779
Note for an Exhibit of New Yorker Cartoons 787
My Cartooning 787
Cartoon Magic 790
Christmas Cards 797
A Childhood Transgression 799
Remembering Pearl Harbor 801
Reflections on Radio 803
Remembering Reading, Pa. 804
An Hour of the Day 805
Home in New England 805
Introduction to Concerts at Castle Hill 807
Accepting the Bobst Award 810
Foreword to John Updike: A Bibliography 811
Accepting the National Book Critics Circle Award 813
Accepting the Howells Medal 815
Introduction to the Easton Press Edition of the Rabbit Novels 816
Henry Bech Interviews Updike 821
"Special Message" for the Franklin Library Edition of Memories of the Ford Administration 825
"Special Message" for the Franklin Library Edition of Brazil 827
"Special Message" for the Franklin Library Edition of In the Beauty of the Lilies 830
"Special Message" for the Franklin Library Edition of Toward the End of Time 832
Two Belated "Talk of the Town" Stories ("TV in NYC," "Amazon.com") 834
Foreword to the French translation of Facing Nature 838
Humor These Days 840
An Answer to a Usual Question 841
Books That Changed My Life 842
Five Remembered Moments of Reading Bliss 843
Remembering Reading Don Quixote 844
The Ten Greatest Works of Literature, 1001-2000 846
Remarks on Religion and Contemporary Literature 848
Accepting the Campion Medal 850
Accepting the National Book Foundation Medal 853
Index 857
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First Chapter

"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.

Let's face it, gentle reader: I set out to be a magazine writer, a wordsmith as the profession was understood in the industrial first half of the century, and I like seeing my name in what they used to call "hard type." The magazine rack at the corner drugstore beguiled me with its tough gloss. The academization and etherealization and latterly the devaluing deconstruction of the writer's trade in the second half of the century have taken me by surprise, though my Harvard education should have prepared me. Journalism has not only its social stimulations but its aesthetic virtues. An invitation into print, from however suspect a source, is an opportunity to make something beautiful, to discover within oneself a treasure that would otherwise have remained buried. When the call comes from beyond one's own language -- from a German, French, Brazilian, or Japanese publication -- the opportunity is to go back to basics, to write of one's own cultural context more bluntly than would be seemly at home, and to phrase an English that, in regard to the finished product, forms a preliminary stage. My two contributions to the Lufthansa Bordbuch (an elegant publication recently trimmed down) appeared in English and German both; otherwise, I explained the cold to Brazilians, my short stories to the Japanese, and my poems to the French with an agreeable sensation of hiding behind a foreign language, as when in my escapades as a cultural ambassador I spoke through a bilingual intermediary. Introducing works by other authors, especially those secure in the lists of immortality, offers the pleasure of another, pedagogic impersonation; the introductions to certain works of Melville, Wharton, and Henry Green gave me the quiet joys of a scholar as he adds his careful modicum to an extensive bibliography. The lecture on New York writing exploited the anthologies of others and marks another occasion when the rustle of mock-professorial robes cosseted my ears. "Religion and Literature" was actually a chapter in a textbook, The Religion Factor, published by a Presbyterian press; I took it upon myself, perhaps wickedly, to remind the presumed students of divinity that a once-healthy religion existed outside the Judaeo-Christian belief system and died, as it were, in literature's embrace. The itch to inform is perhaps as pernicious a goad to utterance as the itch to charm.

The invitations to inform or charm that come my way are limited by the meagre number of my areas of supposed expertise. Of golf I have had my say in Golf Dreams, though a foreword late to tee off offered itself for inclusion in More Matter. Suburban interrelations creep into discussions of dancing, suntanning, and the Fifties. Among living American authors, I take, it may be, an anomalously positive or at least hopeful view of our Republic's progress; hence I am occasionally trusted by the powers that be to expound on matters of state, as the reader can see in the first section. On the strength of my early cartooning ambitions, my single year at an English art school, and my willingness to feel happy in museums, Art and Antiques, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books have over the years let me write on art and exhibits. One book, Just Looking, has already been made of such articles; this present volume holds, in addition to commentary on movies and photographs, those art reviews which did not, it seemed to me, require color illustration, or illustration at all.

As in my other eight-years' gatherings, Picked-Up Pieces, Hugging the Shore, and Odd Jobs, the last section rounds up snippets, some a mere paragraph, pertaining to me and my works. My excuses for this methodical narcissism are that all authorial activity is egoistic anyway and that close students of my work -- there are a few -- will be interested. In truth, so impenetrably loom the paper mountains of a diligent oeuvre, that interviewers rarely seem aware of my faithful deposits of opinion and autobiography. Again and again I am asked questions already patiently answered in print. Never mind; predator satiation being one of nature's survival techniques, I answer them again, and thus add a bit more superfluous self-description to what we might laughingly call "the record." Some repetition is inevitable, as part of the satiation. The inventory of my rather paltry childhood reading keeps coming round, and I fear the same Henry James quotation is invoked three times; in each case it seemed indispensable, and too choice to paraphrase.

A child begins to play at art in the faith that there is a treasure house where the most accomplished work is stored, to last forever, forever consulted. Intimations of the definitive tinged my creative excitement at its outset, around and under our family dining-room table, with its Tiffany lampshade of many glowing colors. There is a bliss in making sets of things, and in bringing something imperfect closer to perfection -- firmly inking in a sketchy drawing, adding a few more verbal enhancements to a final proof. Or, in a review, listing, say, the exotic words in Norman Rush's Mating and the savored meals in Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy. The assembly and arrangement of a book like More Matter offers such satisfactions -- the tactile thrill of the fixed, the interlocking -- but any illusion of "permanent form" struggles against the realizations, come upon me late in life, that paper decays, that readership dwindles, that a book is a kind of newspaper, that the most polished composition loses edge to the flow of language and cultural context, that no masterpiece will outlast the human race, that the race is but an incident in the fauna of our planet, that our planet is doomed to die in a hiccup of the sun, that the sun will eventually implode and explode, and that the universe itself is a transitory scribble on the surface, so oddly breached fifteen billion years ago, of nothingness. Wow! Zap! Nevertheless, the living must live, a writer must write. Enough said. So bulky a book warrants a brief preface.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 22, 2004

    A master at work- but

    This is a dazzling collection of writings on subjects of seemingly infinite variety. The learning and the perception are cumulatively overwhelming. There are so many different artforms, authors, styles, cultural phenomena explored here that the book constitutes a kind of encyclopedia of the aesthetic - world we are living in. Yet I do have a but .And it is that somehow somewhere deep down the conclusion which is arrived at , or the main point which is made is something that does not move me or reach me in a deep way. I can be wrong, and I probably am but for me this is too much of a good thing that is not good enough.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 7, 2011

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