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The better critic is… John Updike or James Wood (or me?)

I’m sorry I’ve fallen behind on blogging. I actually have had a lot of things on my mind worth blogging about recently.

James Dirda answers the question of who is a better literary critic: John Updike or James Wood:

D.C.: Where do you read literary criticism, and who would you consider to be a better literary critic: James Wood or John Updike?

Michael Dirda: Literary criticism–depends what you mean by it. I read book reviews in magazines, newspapers and online. I read literary scholarship in journals and books. Criticism happens sometimes in the liminal territory between.

I admire both the writers you mention, and feel leery in choosing between them. Perhaps I should just say that I’m the best literary critic around–whatever that is–and let it go at that. You can then ask James to choose between me and Updike and ask Updike to choose between James and me.

That said, I think Updike is the most phenomenal all round man of letters of our time–novelist, short-story writer, essayist, literary and art critic, poet. So far as I know he hasn’t started writing about music yet.

Although I basically agree (and Dirda is a terrific critic), let’s not forget Joyce Carol Oates.

By the way, I’ve been reading a terrific analysis of children’s literature, Don’t Tell the Grownups by Allison Lurie.

Wow, here’s another fun quote by Dirda about Updike:

Lenexa, Kan.: You’ve always been good on Updike. I remember you telling us once that in a conversation you had with him, he kept referring to his great “Rabbit” triology (quartet?) as the “Angstrom books.” Seemed perfect.

Michael Dirda: Many thanks. He is an astonishing writer. Smart in every way.

Sometimes, of course, one does tire of the constant brightness of his prose–one yearns for a lackluster moment in which to pause. In a similar way, William Gass is breath-taking,but so rich one feels as if one is wading through marzipan or marshmallow or something delicious but which makes speed impossible. But then one is meant to taste their sentences as well as read them.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • EC 1/29/2009, 3:15 pm

    I found Dirda’s response a bit of a cop-out, though. Fence-straddling.

    Updike is – or was, anyway – the better reviewer (to the extent that a book reviewer is also a “critic”), more generous (by which I don’t mean “easier” on authors, but more open to them) and less agenda-driven, less ego at stake. That said, I was never a huge fan of U’s fiction.

    What’s weird about Wood’s relentlessly hostile reviews of Updike, though, is the way that he’s really boxing his own shadow. All the things he derides in Updike are even more true of him. “Lyric kitsch” – what could be a better description of Wood’s own style?

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