Updike's fear of readers

by Rob Horning

24 June 2006


John Updike has just discovered this crazy new thing called “the Internet” and it has him pretty pissed off. Apparently people who haven’t been carefully groomed by the publishing industry can just go and write whatever they want and reach a public there. How dare they? And what’s worse, people can browse the entire expense of textual information without having to set foot in book stores in Harvard Square or on 5th Avenue in New York, where they can be assessed by the gatekeepers of high culture and discouraged from touching the holy tomes with their grubby hands if they are not the right sort. Why, they can just type in what they are looking for into a “search engine”—barabarous thing, engines—and out pours a diarrheal rush of information, which they are obviously too stupid to sift through, which is sure to pollute their fragile eggshell minds with falsity. And readers, uppity with their ability to aggregate a wider supply of information, will become text processors, picking and choosing what parts of books they want to read and ignoring the author’s manorial right to dictate to them the terms of their passivity. It’s pretty horrible isn’t it? Hopefully Congress will step in and put a stop to this “Internet” or at least put grownups like the cable and telecom companies in charge of what can be disseminated across its lines.

Does Updike realize what a reactionary he is? Stupid question—of course he doesn’t. But to romanticize the glories of wandering aimlessly through bookstores for inspiration and use that as evidence that the Internet should be stifled to preserve the magic of the book is just plain silly. It seems the kind of backward-looking conservative argument you make when you feel your own power and livelihood threatened. So you mount your pedestal and impugn the technology that threatens you, dub it “Marxist” in an ad hominem attack, accuse those working to forward the technology of short-sightedness and utopianism, call them the retrograde reactionaries. Yes, Kevin Kelly’s article for the NYT Magazine about the possibility of a universal library was a bit overheated and rife with futuristic glee at what change technology promises. But Updike distorts it entirely to deduce that the only thing techology promises is the destruction of the author’s right to hide himself away. “Has the electronic revolution pushed us so far down the path of celebrity as a summum bonum that an author’s works, be they one volume or 50, serve primarily as his or her ticket to the lecture platform, or, since even that is somewhat hierarchical and aloof, a series of one-on-one orgies of personal access?” Updike pines for the days when simply being selected to be published was enough to assure your significance, and then you could sit back and bask in notoriety via your proxy, the books in the stores. You didn’t need to promote it, because the means of production were onerous enough to eliminate competition. Publishing was essentially an oligopoly. But the Internet democratizes publishing, and makes the marketplace more contentious. It bruises tender Updike’s sensibility, and he resents that he must face competition, that he must sully himself in the world to make his living. “As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of vicarious confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking advertisement for the book.” That is, rather than having the aristocratic right of transcending the world of public affairs and commenting on them from some lofty, untouchable position, authors now actually have to be much more accountable. So to answer Updike’s fatuous, pompous question: “In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teeming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another — of, in short, accountability and intimacy?”—No. If he can possibly believe that the Internet with its explosion of social networks, journalling, blogging, instant messaging and e-mailing, is undermining communications and removing intimacy from public discourse, then he is more self-deluded than his navel-gazing (or penis-gazing, rather) fiction would lead you to believe. The Intenet brings dead texts like his own back to life by allowing people to work with them much more actively. But since Updike won’t be allowed to control or profit from such manipulations, he’d rather not know about them. They hurt his tender authorial feelings. The very idea of it makes him think about having to go out in public and reassert his authority over his own work and bury it anew, safely in the narrow tomb of his own moribund opinion. The idea that his work could be subject to a community of perspectives is “ominous” to him—he prefers to browbeat readers one at a time, so he can remain always master and the reader always the servant. This is why he fetishizes the lonely one-on-one relation of bookreader and author; it’s the scenario that preserves his mastery and his reader’s enfeeblement: “It is the site of an encounter, in silence, of two minds, one following in the other’s steps but invited to imagine, to argue, to concur on a level of reflection beyond that of personal encounter, with all its merely social conventions, its merciful padding of blather and mutual forgiveness.” Yes, forgiveness is only so much blather; what’s important is being forced to follow in the author’s footsteps and guaranteeing the author be the only recourse to any questions that path inspires. If this is beyond a mere personal encounter, it’s because it’s been elevated in Updike’s mind to something almost religious, the private relationship of a penitent reader confronting his God in the form of Updike. If Updike fears having his work contextualized in the greater sphere of other texts, perhaps its because his work can’t bear the scrutiny. He fears his readers, allowed to communicate with each other as they read his puerile accounts of masculinity, will dismiss him altogether, reject the worn path his mind repeatedly lays out.

Anyway, the whole notion that the Internet reduces the significance of text is ludicrous—what it does is force people to do more with it to earn a living by it while opening up more opportunites for people to earn such livings. It certainly doesn’t threaten individuality, unless individuality can mean only isolation. (Updike’s right when he refers to himself as a “surly hermit”) And it doesn’t dull the edge of ideas; if anything it reveals them in surprising places, sending them often to cut back against the grain the author intended. The seriousness with which a reader approaches a text doesn’t depend on what surface the words are printed on. May as well decry the destruction of “intimacy” when readers stopped reading the handwritten papyri of scribes. Updike would probably concur with that though—an ideal situation, where the limitations of textual reproduction kept the reading public to a size small enough where its every interpretation could be controlled.

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