When John Updike gives a talk at the Writer's Guild Auditorium in Los Angeles, it's a big deal, roughly the equivalent of Georgio Armani stopping by the Dockers showroom. But here Updike was last Tuesday night, all smiles, distinguished gray and Ivy elegance, gliding on stage to discuss literature in a town where full sentences leave a lot of people really wiped out.
Drizzling a queasy vapor over the event was Michiko Kakutani's fairly savage review in that morning's New York Times of Mr. Updike's latest novel "Terrorist." On the ticket line, one woman shook her head and said, "How do you chit-chat about your book knowing the audience has all read a review like that?"
Rabbit Angstrom: "The world keeps ending but new people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun's just started."
Hollywood works overtime finding sly ways of making its movies "bullet-proof" from critics. Films are preemptively shoved into the blogosphere and product-pre-promoted to the point where critics and their dopey thumbs are left grading to no one. Don't kid yourself, lots of good ideas can arise when an entire city focuses on answering one question: "How can we get around this quality problem?"
The problem for someone like Mr. Updike is that there is no "we." No director warping his words with a shaky hand-held camera, no Army Corps or Make-up Artists blotting the dark eyes of the hero, no realtor-turner-producer threatening to pull the plug unless the terrorist is made more likeable. John Updike's books are John Updike's.
That should be a gift. That he's so prolific, an added gift.
Rabbit: " If you have the guts to be yourself, other people'll pay your price."
Moments after a glowing introduction to the readers of Los Angeles, Mr. Updike blew out any underlying tension by musing on his worshipful welcome in the wake of his printed panning. With oppressively perfect subject-verb agreement, he said bad reviews are good when you're on a book tour because otherwise, you get nothing but unconditional love.
Still, the unkindness of the Times' review of "Terrorist" rankled the LA crowd. Mumbles: Just the beautiful way Updike speaks, how can he be zinged like that? Contrary to popular belief -- and logic -- this company town holds a certain reverence for real writers. Screen writers in particular, never root for the great authors to be slammed by critics. Each other? Sure. Vaunted authors? No. The greatness of the truly great is something no one here wants tainted. Honestly, Hollywood, for all its self-everything, doesn't want to believe that, if he were alive today, Tennessee Williams would be writing "Suddenly Last Samurai."
Rabbit: "The great thing about the dead, they make space."
Relieved that the Question and Answer period with Mr. Updike featured only one cringe-worthy "I'm-a-screen-writer-and-I-was wondering..." question, people milled around outside the auditorium buying up boxes of books, watching the author sign cover pages. The lines were long. There was time for autopsies on the evening. It was whispered: in the movie business, the literary equivalent to Mr. Updike is Woody Allen. It was recalled: For years, Mr. Allen received either rave reviews or the most gentle wisps of negativity from the Times.
From Wilshire and Doheny, this seemed a more just way of the world. You write "Manhattan," you earn years of delicate indulgence. You write the Rabbit series, you deserve fifty-five lifetimes of critical kid gloves.
Anyway, "Terrorist" did a lot of business last Tuesday night.