The smiling, Bermuda-shorted figure on the jacket of John Updike’s new volume of essays and criticism looks engagingly pleased with the world and himself, and the first sentences of his Foreword tell us why:
Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea. At sea, we have that beautiful blankness all round, a cold bright wind, and the occasional thrill of a gleaming dolphin-back or the synchronized leap of silverfish; hugging the shore, one can always come about and draw even closer to the land with another nine-point quotation. This is a big book but perhaps a quarter of the words belong to other people.
It all sounds pretty good to someone who’s been shore-bound for years, and whose memory of dolphin-backs is not as fresh as it might be.
Updike does indeed quote generously and aptly, but there is more to his quoting than the setting up of targets or the driving home of points. For the principal aspect of his reviewing practice, one that is easily lost sight of in the toils of that opening metaphor, is his