Remembering Updike

Some lovely pieces by his New Yorker colleagues in the current issue. For example, this by his editor, Roger Angell.

As a contributor, he was patient with editing, and pertinaciously involved with his product: an editor’s dream. My end of the work was to point out an occasional inconsistent or extraneous sentence, or a passage that wanted something more. Almost under his breath over our phone connection, while we looked at the same lines, he would try out an alternative: “Which one sounds better, do you think?” Sighing, he would take us back over the same few words again and again, then propose or listen to a switch of some sort, and try again. All writers do this, but not many with such a lavishly extended consideration. He wanted to see each galley, each tiny change, right down to the late-closing page proofs, which he often managed to return by overnight mail an hour or so before closing, with new sentences or passages, handwritten in the margins in a soft pencil, that were fresher and more inventive and revealing than what had been there before. You watched him write.

This process sounds old-fashioned, but Updike was probably the very first New Yorker writer to shift over to a computer, back in the early eighties. “I don’t know how this will change my writing,” he wrote to me in advance, “but it will.” He was right, of course: the flavor was mysteriously different, the same wine but of another year.

And then this from Adam Gopnik:

It was part of the great good luck of this magazine that he needed, or indulged, us, and that his appetites and ambitions matched the dreams of the editors—which is only to say that several generations of editors tossed a bit less fitfully at 3 A.M., knowing that, if a book on some knotty modern subject had been sent out to Massachusetts, two weeks later there was sure to be, rebounding back, nine or ten pages of perfectly tuned prose—typo-free, full of cunning synopsis, serene judgment, big news (a generation got educated on Borges and Nabokov alongside him), bite without tooth marks, and always at the end a permanent turn of phrase or a metaphor, not a witticism merely but a benediction, a blessing, an insight that lifted it far above mere reviewing and into a form of witty personal poetry.

And, as those same generations of editors learned, the near-perfect thing was usually prefaced by a letter gaily outlining its supposed inadequacies, and all the reasons the editors might wisely prefer not to run it at all—a form of modesty that, given not just the quality but the heat and shimmer of what was enclosed, passed the edge of modesty to touch the edge of superstition: it was, one realized, Updike’s way of staying young, an outsider, pressing his face against a window, still the long-faced brilliant boy on a remote Pennsylvania farm turning the pages of a New York magazine and quietly deciding to be a cartoonist and a humorist and a parodist, while the loving and ambitious mother fretted and the weak but honest father listened to the radio (a family triangle that he inserted, again and again, into all our imaginations). He was still a kid from Shillington dreaming of being a New York wit, and feeling lucky that he had been allowed in at all.