Tuesday, January 27, 2009

RIP America's Most Overesteemed Writer

Fosco Lives! bids a fond farewell to John Updike, known around these parts as The Most Overesteemed Man in American Letters. Updike is well-known for anthropomorphizing bunnies, making sex repulsive, and, well, being John Updike.

Fosco has read several of Updike's novels and each one is more unbearable than the last (especially his gimmicky "home-grown American terrorist" novel). This is not to say that Updike was talentless. Fosco does recall one or two short stories that were pretty good. And Updike's art criticism is pretty decent, especially his meditation on Renoir:

Renoir does not quite rank with the heroic masters of early modern painting--specifically, with his friends Monet and Cézanne. Compared with either, he didn't look hard enough. He saw what he wanted to see, and turned it as he aged into an inward vision, a mythology. [...] The brushstrokes turn greasier, the colors rawer, the drawing vaguer. In the end the people all look Mexican.
This is a critical bullseye, I would say, but we must remember that an occasional perceptive comment should not make one into a titan of American letters (deserving of a front page NYTimes obit).

So how did Updike come to be so overesteemed? The definitive history of this phenomenon is yet to be written; however, Fosco suspects it has something to do with the 1960s-70s and suburban adultery.

Updike had held the title of "Most Overesteemed Man in American Letters" since the death of Norman Mailer in 2007. Mailer had held the title for almost twenty years, with a brief hiatus from 1996-1999 when David Foster Wallace held the distinction.

Who does the title pass on to now? Unfortunately, David Foster Wallace is dead, as is Hunter S. Thompson. Robert Olen Butler may overly esteem himself, but I'm not sure anyone else likes him at all. Philip Roth and Don DeLillo are both highly esteemed, but deservedly so, in Fosco's judgment. Similarly, I think Cormac McCarthy could not be overesteemed. Are there any women who qualify? (After all, this title doesn't have to go to a man.) Again, Fosco believes that the esteem for Toni Morrison is entirely justified.

Richard Ford is a possibility, but he's actually pretty good and people don't really talk about him much anymore. We are probably going to have to go down one tier to find our new titleholder. In the second tier, I think Jeffrey Eugenides is a strong candidate. But instead, I am going to award the title of Most Overesteemed American Man of Letters to Michael Chabon. Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for a ridiculously bad novel about comic books), as well as a promoter of stupid genre fiction. He has scraggly rock-star hair.

Congratulations, Michael Chabon! May you continue to be scandalously over-rated for many years to come.

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