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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Novel of Social Relevance


John Updike's passing takes away another novelist who wrote about society. We have a few left, Delillo comes to mind, John Irving, but the era of writers commenting on the times we live in is largely behind us. This responsibility has fallen to movies and television with the modern novelist picking up history or just straight out formulaic entertainment. The reasons for this are many, sales being a large one, people don't expect their books to point out our weaknesses as this has been relegated to a two hour movie. But John Updike was of an era where people did expect their novelist to educate, to question, to point out something more than just a quirky story of historical interest. I remember my mother in the seventies had all of Updike's novels. We were a liberal household of Democrats and Updike was standard fare. My mother especially identified with his fingering of the suburban cultural starvation and that was how I came to find the Rabbit books. They were left on coffee tables with passages underlined, pages turned down, quotes my mother wanted to remember. I was too young for a lot of those early readings. I had yet to discover my own suburban angst, but Updike held a nation with his characters that everyone recognized as having the same dreams and frustrations as other middle class people. The novel of social relevance was in it's hay day it seemed in the feel good seventies. But people moved on and needed more instantaneous comment on their situation and so the movies took this mantle and men like Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen took a few stabs, but most novelists moved on to the greener pastures of mass entertainment. There are plenty of people still writing socially significant novels, it's just that most of them never see the light of day. John Updike was one of the last great novelists who could walk the line between an interesting story and a parable. He wil be missed. As I said in the Chicago Sun Times, http://www.suntimes.com/entertainment/books/1400342,CST-FTR-xupdike28.article
we are slowly losing our literary heritage. RIP.

Books by William Hazelgrove