The contrast between the fates of two great American novelists, Cormac McCarthy (1933-) and John Updike (1932-2009) is a picture of the ironies of fame and writing.
McCarthy was for years a cult figure, a reclusive, difficult writer who some writers and critics proclaimed as a dark genius but who the public stayed away from. He was named at one stage as ‘the best undiscovered novelist of his generation’. For me, his masterpiece Blood Meridian and his brilliant Border Trilogy were secret countries I was so proud to have visited when the world at large knew nothing of them.
When he finally published another novel in 2005, No Country For Old Men, one reviewer stated that at 72, it was probably the last we would hear from him. But he came straight back with the post-apocalyptic novel The Road in 2006, and, far from the swansong of an obscure writer, Oprah Winfrey picked it up for her book club. Suddenly middle aged ladies across the USA and Australia were reading the dark Texan master and discussing him over glasses of champagne.
Things didn’t stop there; the Coen brothers made one of their most critically acclaimed films ever from No Country and when the film of The Road finishes production, McCarthy hype will be at fever pitch. All this from a man who writes of a cruel world which wipes out hope from the bravest men and knows no happy endings. McCarthy’s success is incongruous; he is meant to be the writer’s writer, the test of a reader’s pedigree. But what a perfect late career he has had. I think any writer would choose a path like his, as against what happened to poor Updike.
Updike achieved fame and critical success early; Rabbit, Run was published when he was just 28 and was the first of his brilliant Rabbit quartet. The world was amazed by the brilliance of his prose and no-one through the sixties and seventies depicted upper-middle America with such elegance and warmth.
Yet it must be nearly impossible to stay on the right side of the critics and also be prolific. Who has ever managed? The critics seem to like the enigmatic writer releasing the occasional novel after years of silence; much more exciting than the steady prolificy of an Updike, a new novel year after year. It became a requirement that critics accuse him of being tired or tiresome, of never breaking new ground, of being all beautiful prose and no substance. There’s something to the accusations; he did write about adultery a little too much, but he was also constantly experimenting with very different genres, from his own attempt at science-fiction – Toward the End of Time – to Terrorist. He didn’t just write about adultery in New England!
So after the praise heaped on his masterpiece, Rabbit at Rest (1991), it was all downhill for Updike. It was as if he had died with Rabbit. He kept on writing, he kept on publishing, he kept up his good humour and warmth for the world and for upper-middle America, but it didn’t reward him back. And then, ignominy of ignominies, after the lukewarm reviews of his final (humous) novel, The Widows of Eastwick, the last award he received was a lifetime achievement award for writing the world’s worst sex scenes. Unjustified, when even if he wrote too much about sex, he wrote about it with originality, beauty and humour.
Which writer, on the balance, would want to be in Updike’s shoes? Lauded early and gently scorned late, always compared unfavourably to earlier works. Poor Updike; he believed in the goodness of the world; he had a gently humorous touch even as he wrote of his fear of death and the mundane struggles of middle class life. And unlike McCarthy, he didn’t get a happy ending to his career.