Literary Up: Updike, Uptight

John Updike, Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism (Knopf, 2011)

Never connected deeply with John Updike, though of course he was prolific and ubiquitous and unavoidable for anyone who reads anything.

We apparently shared a lot of tastes, so I’d find myself knocking up against his opinions in forewords, introductions to anthologies and of course the zillion magazines and journals he wrote for.

But ultimately we come from different places, Updike and I. He embraced that whole suburban lit snobbery aesthetic from which I generally run screaming.

So this posthumous volume was a sore temptation and a sore trial. My last chance to come to terms with the guy.

I couldn’t. Elitism and erudition drive me nuts. Nuts!

Updike can’t write about pop culture honestly; he’s always reaching for the intellectual justification. His visual art reviews are more about words than pictures—he analyzes his own descriptions of the paintings, not the paintings themselves.

Updike works so hard and being unflappable and unshockable and above-it-all that you wish he’d just stop writing and go to bed.

Listening to… Sharon Van Etten

Sharon Van Etten, Tramp.

Nice to hear that PJ Harvey isn’t an island unto herself, and has had some pervading influence. If Sharon Van Etten recorded these songs 20 or 30 years ago, you could imagine them turning out very, very differently. That’s not to say that Tramp is derivative, or rides current trends. It just has an open, explorative sense, a studio daring. Van Etten can sing gorgeously, clearly, crisply, but just doesn’t always choose to. That makes for a varied, swooping, human set of songs. The production tends to counter the vocalist’s whims—when she gets raw, the backing sounds get smooth and classical. When she croons sweetly, she gets a stark rhythm backdrop. The songs are fine, but the open-minded manner is which they are presented, and the challenges Van Etten sets for herself, make Tramp a keeper that you can return to again and again, in a variety of high and low moods.