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John Updike
American novelist and short-story writer
(1932- )

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In imagining a huge, virtually infinite wordstream accessed by search engines and populated by teaming, promiscuous word snippets stripped of credited authorship, are we not depriving the written word of its old-fashioned function of, through such inventions as the written alphabet and the printing press, communication from one person to another -- of (...), in short, accountability and intimacy? Yes, there is a ton of information on the web, but much of it is egregiously inaccurate, unedited, unattributed and juvenile. The electronic marvels that abound us serve, surprisingly, to inflame what is most informally and non-critically human about us -- our computer screens stare back at us with a kind of giant, instant 'Aw shucks,' disarming in its modesty, disquieting in its diffidence.
-- "The End of Authorship", one of the essays collected in the posthumous collection, Higher Gossip (2011)

It was true of my generation, that the movies were terribly vivid and instructive. There were all kinds of things you learned. Like the 19th century novels, you saw how other social classes lived — especially the upper classes. So in a funny way, they taught you manners almost. But also moral manners. The gallantry of a Gary Cooper or an Errol Flynn or Jimmy Stewart. It was ethical instruction of a sort that the church purported to be giving you, but in a much less digestible form. Instead of these remote, crabbed biblical verses, you had contemporary people acting out moral dilemmas. Just the grace, the grace of those stars — not just the dancing stars, but the way they all moved with a certain grace. All that sank deep into my head, and my soul.

I don't know if that's true now. I think the movies have come to mean something else. There was much that was crass and harsh about the studio world.... And yet they kind of knew what they were doing, they kind of knew their audience. Once television began to steal away that middle-class audience, the movies seemed to get frantic: "What can we do that the TV can't?" And so you've got spectacle on the one hand, and a constant pushing of the sexual envelope on the other. And a feeling of trying too hard entered into the movies, for me, somewhere around 1957 or so. ... But [now] you don't see many that give you the sense of a really coherent moral world. The old films sort of hung together as sermons...

-- Salon interview, "As close as you can get to the stars", 2000

In the old movies, yes, there always was the happy ending and order was restored. As it is in Shakespeare's plays. It's no disgrace to, in the end, restore order. And punish the wicked and, in some way, reward the righteous.

I think that the kind of readers that would make it worthwhile to print a literary writer are dwindling. People seem to read more purely for escape than when I was younger.

When I was a boy, the bestselling books were often the books that were on your piano teacher's shelf. I mean, Steinbeck, Hemingway, some Faulkner. Faulkner actually had, considering how hard he is to read and how drastic the experiments are, quite a middle-class readership. But certainly someone like Steinbeck was a bestseller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent. You don't feel that now. I don't feel that we have the merger of serious and pop -- it's gone, dissolving. Tastes have coarsened. People read less, they're less comfortable with the written word. They're less comfortable with novels. They don't have a backward frame of reference that would enable them to appreciate things like irony and allusions. It's sad.

And who's to blame [for the decline of the readership of literary fiction]? Well, everything's to blame. Movies are to blame, for stealing a lot of the novel's thunder. Why read a novel when in two hours you can just go passively sit and be dazzled and amazed and terrified? Television is to blame, especially because it's come into the home. It's brought the fascination of the flickering image right into the house; like turning on a faucet, you can have it whenever you want. I was a movie addict, but you could only see so many movies in the course of a week. I still had a lot of time to read, and so did other people. But I think television would take all your day if you let it. Now we have
these cultural developments on the Internet, and online, and the computer offering itself as a cultural tool, as a tool of distributing not just information but arts -- and who knows what inroads will be made there into the world of the book.

-- Salon interview, "As close as you can get to the stars", 2000

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The selection of the above quotes and the writing of the accompanying notes was performed by the author David Paul Wagner.

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