I hardly need to laud Adam Begley's biography of John Updike; the reviews I've seen have been universally positive. I could add to the praise, but what would be the point? Begley has taken a subject who spent most of his working life at a typewriter, was not alcoholic, did not do drugs, was never arrested, was not abused as a child and published almost 500 fascinating pages about his life.
Rather, let me point out a few points that struck me.
Updike was enormously productive: more than 20 novels, several hundred short stories, eight collections of poetry, book reviews, art criticism, and more. He did all this without an agent. shepherding his works through the press himself, read voraciously, carried on voluminous correspondence (invaluable sources for a biographer), played golf twice a week, volunteered for numerous civic duties, and enjoyed an agitated social and romantic life, and "also found time to wrestle the vines off the roof of the barn or to fit a new door in the living room." Would that I were so productive.
Updike, it seems, existed on two levels: his actual, lived experience while simultaneously recording the experience as future material. Begley describes the scene when Updike tells his children at the dinner table that he and his first wife Joan are getting divorced, a scene Updike used in a short story he wrote a couple of weeks later: "Taking a step back from the fiction (in this case, bare fact artfully arranged), we see Updike's tears flowing at the same prodigious rate, with the same range of significance, and more: the added amazement that he could sit weeping through this traumatic meal and navigate its equally traumatic denouement, all the while gathering up and filing away the detailed impressions that would later give life to a short story." Even as he was truly anguished, he was watching himself being anguished.
Of course, what else can a creative writer draw on but experience? Research will take you only so far and knowledgeable readers can recognize the difference between researched and felt material. Updike himself said nine months into his second marriage, "One of the problems of being a fiction writer is that of gathering experience. The need for seclusion, and the respectability that goes with some success, both are very sheltering—they cut you off from painful experience. We all want to avoid painful experience, and yet painful experience is your chief resource as a writer."
But why write fiction at all? Updike and Tom Wolfe in a dust-up gave two different reasons. Wolfe wrote that the aim of fiction was to expose the "status structure of society." The individual matters only because of his "intimate and inextricable relation to the society around him," said Wolfe. As Begley comments, "The inner life of a creature who stands on just two feet hardly figures in Wolfe's scheme...."
In contrast, Updike wrote that "Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has ever invented." He denied that fiction should be read for the kind of information journalists report: "Unlike journalism . . . fiction does not give us facts snug in their accredited truth . . . we make fiction true as we read it."
Certainly anyone who enjoys Updike's writings should read this biography. Anyone who is serious about his or her own writing should also read it. (I found Begley's chapters roiling my own memories and made notes for half a dozen new stories.) And finally anyone who enjoys a masterful biography of an interesting life should read it.