Cranky old John Updike has always used his bully pulpit at The New Yorker to blast popular writers who didn't fit his idea of fiction. As he's gotten older, his hatred of anything he doesn't understand has become commensurately more transparent, earning the ire of Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, and David Foster Wallace. And when you use that power to throw both Toni Morrison and William Faulkner under the bus in that magazine while making sure to say that you find her white characters the most convincing, we have a problem with you, you old bastard.In 1975 Anatole Broyard wrote in The New York Times that as a critic, John Updike was "too kind." In the years since he seems to have taken that diss to heart, relentlessly smearing even the most slightly ambitious work that's not in his preferred, realistic style...of men who only think about sex. He starts off this truly wretched review in this week's New Yorker with the following bon mot/machete, "Toni Morrison has a habit, perhaps traceable to the pernicious influence of William Faulkner, of plunging into the narrative before the reader has a clue to what is going on." This is nothing new for Updike — as his prose has gotten more journalistic and dull over time, his level of tolerance for more exciting stylists is inversely proportional to his own ineptitude, and he's made many enemies. (Salman Rushdie once said after Updike criticized how he named his characters, "Why not? Somewhere in Las Vegas there's a male prostitute named John Updike.") He needs to take a cue from the man who said, "Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt." That of course was John Updike, more than three decades ago. The 76-year-old Updike pretends to be more politic before throwing Morrison under the bus, as if it were impossible to know exactly what he thinks of A Mercy. Ironically, his language becomes more circular and winding than Morrison as he puts her down in the most condescending fashion possible. Does he know how transparently pathetic he sounds?
Actor/comedian/VH1 fixture Michael Ian Black is sick to death of memoirist David Sedaris hogging all the best-seller lists for himself, so he's taking the NPR man down. To get the ball rolling on his would-be literary feud-and to promote his own book, My Custom Van: And 50 Other Mind-Blowing Essays That Will Blow Your Mind All Over Your Face-Black offers suggestions on ways to belittle Sedaris in casual conversation. "Say, for example, you are at league bowling night and your buddy finds himself facing an easy pick-up for a spare. Just before he bowls say something like, 'Don't miss, Bob, or you might hear David Sedaris telling a long and humorous story about what a boob you are on 'This American Life.'"
Why, it's Michiko Kakutani, fiction critic at the New York Times, of course! As a general rule, authors do tend to think the "stupidest people in the city" are the ones who reviewed their books negatively. (It's just one of those things.) In Franzen's case, it was her review of his memoir The Discomfort Zone that really set him off: "In the case of this book the author's self-involvement not only makes for an incredibly annoying portrait, but also funnels the narrative into a dismayingly narrow channel." Regardless of quality, it hurts more than usual when someone criticizes your memoir. It's not like saying, "I don't like your characters." It's more like, "I don't like your life." (That said, there are just some things that should not be published.) [NY Observer]
Author and professional personality Gore Vidal is a man who holds grudges. He holds them dearly, tenderly, and he'll hold them all to the grave, should he ever actually reach it. His sparring partners nearly all reside there these days—Truman Capote some time ago, Mailer (who he never actually hated that much, fistfights aside) more recently, and conservative intellectual William F. Buckley just last February. Buckley and Vidal's history goes back to the early 1960s, when they appeared on television together quite often to argue with each other, which was always thrilling, as the animosity between them was real. Which is easily seen in Vidal's non-obituary of Buckley, which is also a take-down of Newsweek's Buckley obituary. And of Newsweek itself, and the entire United States press, and even Buckley's "creepy" son Chris. It is, we're reasonably sure, the first thing Vidal's written on the subject of his enemy since Buckley's death, and quite possibly since well before that. As you might expect, it's a great (if sadly brief) read.
Back in April, when Alex Kuczynski last contributed to the New York Times Book Review, she struck out against "jealous book critics" who like tearing down modeling novels because they "aren't tall and gorgeous" and because they want "to wield their puny amount of power to establish some sort of moral order." She sort of whispered it, but we heard her; this weekend, she appears in the Book Review once again, writing on a pair of short fiction lady books (not yet online, mysteriously), and her campaign for singularity in the scribble sphere is becoming more pronounced.
Not-chick-lit debut novelist Katherine Taylor laughs and shrugs off Ben Kunkel's snippy letter to the Observer, in which he responded to her assessment of his book Indecision as "ridiculously simple" by revealing that he declined to blurb her book but read enough of it "to understand her anxiety about being taken seriously." She tells Time Out: "I certainly didn't mean to insult him. The irony of that whole situation is that a word like simple was too complex for Mr. Kunkel to appreciate." Ha! Oh dear God, please let her book be good.
Alex Kuczynski, writing in this week's New York Times Book Review, delivers a taut, 850-word piece on the debut novel by 80s supermodel Paulina Porizkova. Between this and her article on virginity from March 24th, that's two appearances in the NYTBR in three weeks. Might the Kucz be moving over to books full-time now that she's gotten sick of the shopping?