Updike as critic: versatile, diligent, erudite, entertaining

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For some years now, John Updike has enjoyed an interesting and productive ''sub-career'' (his word) as a book reviewer for The New Yorker - where he cut his literary teeth back in the 1950s in the days before his novels, as a junior-whiz staff writer and sometime cartoonist.

And here, close on the heels of his latest big novel, comes this imposing collection of Updike's recent miscellaneous prose. It includes some smoothly written descriptions of ''Persons and Places,'' most notably a set of fictional ''Interviews with Insufficiently Famous Americans'' (''The Undertaker,'' the sexually explicit ''One's Neighbor's Wife,'' and so on). Updike the golf aficionado also provides an amusing piece called ''Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Masters.'' This section concludes with a smattering of his modest fulminations on his own work: award acceptance speeches, interviews, introductions, and forewords.

But the bulk of the book is given over to Updike's considerations of ''Other People's Books'': eight years' worth, numbering more than 100. His reviews cover an invigorating variety of writers and subjects. There's a superb triad of essays on ''American Masters'' Hawthorne, Whitman, and Melville. The searching ''Melville's Withdrawal'' is probably Updike's finest work in this vein. And there are provocative assessments of such contemporaries as Bellow, Cheever, Vonnegut, Anne Tyler, Muriel Spark, and William Trevor.

Recommended: Default

Updike assiduously acquaints himself with the work of various European, African, and Oriental novelists; keeps up with literary biographies and collections of writerly correspondence; and tackles occasional offbeat material (Bruno Bettelheim on the meaning of fairy tales, Carl Sagan on the human brain, Doris Day on her Hollywood career). The range of material included persuasively demonstrates his versatility and diligence.

What these essays reveal, and celebrate, are the varied wonders of which literature, mainly fiction, is capable, and the ways good books can stimulate their readers' imaginations. Updike excels in describing the entire shape of a writer's career, and in finding resonant, evocative summary phrases: He shows how John Cheever developed from a satirist into something very like a ''transcendentalist.'' He says of Ann Beattie, unofficial historian of the 1960s , that she ''seems to feel sorry for the whole decade''; calls ''food writer'' M. F. K. Fisher ''a poet of the appetites''; speaks admiringly of French writer Raymond Queneau's ''cerebral prankishness, electric pace, and cut-on-the-bias poetry,'' and speaks impatiently of ''whatever it is that (William) Burroughs does with scissors and eggbeater to concoct his books.''

These reviews are models of craft - and something more. Updike summarizes expertly and quotes tellingly, and takes care to seek out the true thematic and moral center of whatever book he's analyzing. We see him at his best reviewing several collections of authors' letters: he lingers appreciatively over E. B. White's aphoristic sentences, noting their affinities with Thoreau's; he's sensitive to the much-maligned John O'Hara's zealous professionalism (''O'Hara was crazy about writing, and his writing has the innocence of enthusiasm''); he zeroes in on the flawed Hemingway persona (''a man less committed to dominating every room he was in might have developed more as a writer'').

The extra work Updike does for his assignments (comparing translations, tracking down helpful biographical information, reading an author's relevant earlier works) belies the claim, expressed in this book's playfully defensive ''Foreword,'' that ''writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.'' Don't believe a word of that. Opinion will probably remain divided over whether Updike belongs among our best novelists (I think he does), but there cannot be any serious disagreement over his emergent status as one of our finest literary critics. ''Hugging the Shore'' bristles with erudition, energy, and (quietly asserted) high seriousness; it is also one of the year's most entertaining books.

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