Friday, April 11, 2014

John Updike's Use of "Real Life" in his Fiction

Are you sometimes curious about how much of a given author’s work comes from “real life”? I am. New York magazine (3/24/14) gives us at least a partial answer in the case of John Updike. In an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of Updike, Adam Begley tells of several cases where Updike used his own experiences, and those of others, almost exactly in his fiction. In one case, for example, journalist William Ecenbarger, after an interview with Updike, was “astonished to find…Updike had transcribed – verbatim – their exchanges” in a New Yorker story, and had included many details of their time together. Apparently Updike openly acknowledged his common use of real events and remarks, using a “startling simile” (in Begley’s words), as follows (Updike’s words): “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” In other words, Updike says further, “The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life.” The image is slightly off-putting, but captures a sort of pragmatic laser focus on his work that he feels is necessary. To quote Begley further, on Updike’s using scraps of his life and of others’ lives: “No one was spared; not his parents, not his two wives, not his four children.” Updike once wrote that “the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.” And Updike’s eldest son, David, said in a public television interview that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people”; Updike himself agreed that this was true. This is sad and disturbing, yet perhaps understandable. In a novel I just finished reading, Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” the narrator plans and longs (and fails) to be an “art monster,” someone who is totally dedicated to her art and allows nothing, no human connections, to get in the way of that. Perhaps this is the dilemma of many writers and other artists: on some level they feel they have to choose whether they are in “all in” regarding their art, or whether they will allow human connections to come first, and possibly to distract them from or dilute their artistic work. What a terrible dilemma this is, if in fact this is a choice many feel they have to make. I cannot say whether such a choice is absolutely necessary, but it seems to me that many great writers have also been good children, spouses, parents, and friends, without sacrificing their loved ones to their art. However, I could be wrong.


  1. I wish I didn't feel this way, but I think it's true that one must put one's art before everything else to be truly successful in the public view. Perhaps over time those who give importance to human relationships will make their reputations, but all around me I see the stunning success of the ruthless, the aggressive, the completely self-centered. This may be getting worse with the advent of social media because relentless self-promotion takes even more time away from family and friends. Okay, I'll make an exception for the rich, who can hire others to do all the things they would wish to delegate.

  2. Thanks, Beth E., for this perspective; I wish it weren't this way, but I know it often is.


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