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Writers who should be paid NOT to write

May 17, 2008 |  5:45 am

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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