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Writers who should be paid NOT to write

At his blog, ABC of Reading, Thomas McGonigle, one of our contributors, has posted an item about writers he'd like to see less from on forthcoming publisher catalog lists. What would they get in return? The post suggests having George Soros establish a fund to compensate these writers for their silence.

Provocative, yes. Among many big-name writers on the list (Ian McEwan, Seamus Heaney and Francine Prose), prominent near the top is John Updike, who has received his share of fairly lukewarm reviews for his novels in the past decade. In fact, he's received quite a few. I looked around. Of his 2006 novel, "Terrorist," for instance, James Wood wrote in the New Republic:

"It is the otherness of Islamicism that is missing in this book. Despite all the Koranic homework, there is a sense that what is alien in Islam to a Westerner remains alien to John Updike. What he has discovered, yet again, is merely the generalized fluid of God-plus-sex that has run throughout all his novels."

Adam Begley wrote in the New York Observer that Updike's 2004 book, "Villages," was too generic; the 2002 novel, "Seek My Face," was tedious to Ron Charles of the Christian Science Monitor. Los Angeles Times critic Susan Salter Reynolds wrote of Updike's 2000 book, "Licks of Love": "The stories are painstakingly written; effort shows on every page. There's too much detail, too much retelling of the characters' most ordinary thoughts. Most of the stories ... feel unfinished; summarily ended, as though Updike simply shrugged."

There are many who admire Updike's work, and I'm definitely among them, but the common thread in the criticisms is that he writes too often. This fall, in fact, he has a novel coming from Alfred A. Knopf, "The Widows of Eastwick," which picks up the story told in "The Witches of Eastwick." I wouldn't dare to tell a giant of American letters not to publish anymore, even if Soros said "yes" to the don't-write funding idea, but McGonigle's post made me think: If there were a little more time between Updike books — say, three years rather than two — perhaps there'd be more room at the bigger publishers for such writers as Gary Amdahl, who are doing exciting things.

Nick Owchar

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I've been a big fan of Updike for two decades and generally, I agree with your conclusion. He seems compelled, like an aging rock star, to release new material on a semi-regular basis just to remind the literati that he is still alive and, worse, to take advantage of collectors like me who will always purchase his new material in first edition.

"Widows of Eastwick" may be his most flagrant attempt yet at earning a few extra bucks, as it will take advantage of the buzz over the new musical version of "Witches of Eastwick." Am I the only one who didn't like Eastwick all that much?

"Terrorist" was really the novel that brought me to that conclusion. I thought "Seek my Face" was good enough not to complain too much and "Villages" just read like a long version of one of his more mediocre short stories. But Wood's review of "Terrorist" hits the mark. When I finished the book I turned to my wife and said, "well, that was disappointing. His editor should have told him to go back to his room and spend another year fleshing out his characters."


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