Great critics have the ability to make you see things about books that are at once obvious yet so subtle many others have overlooked them. John Updike is a great critic partly because he has this skill. I disagree with many of his views and, when I don’t, sometimes suspect him of pulling punches out of kindness to his fellow novelists. But I admire his book reviews for The New Yorker and other publications partly because they often call attention to something essential that other critics haven’t expressed or expressed as well. A case in point is his answer to the question: How does fiction hold our attention? It appears in his review of Denton Welch’s A Voice Through a Cloud, collected in Picked-up Pieces (Knopf, 1975), one of Updike’s early collections of essays, reviews and other nonfiction.
“Fiction captures and holds our interest with two kinds of suspense: circumstantial suspense – the lowly appetite, aroused by even comic strips, to know the outcome of an unresolved situation – and what might be called gnostic suspense, the expectation that at any moment an illumination will occur. Bald plot caters to the first; style, wit of expression, truth of observation, vivid painterliness, brooding musicality, and all the commendable rest pay court to the second. Gnostic suspense is not negligible – almost alone it moves us through those many volumes of Proust – but it stands to the other rather like charm to sex in a woman. We hope for both, and can even be more durably satisfied by charm than by sex (all animals are sad after coitus and after reading a detective story); but charm remains the ancillary and dispensable quality.”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.