Updike and Parini trade slaps on review pages

Dueling men of letters fail to reveal conflict of interest.

Topics: Books,

In the Dec. 10 edition of London’s Times Literary Supplement, novelist and biographer Jay Parini gave novelist and critic John Updike’s “More Matter: Essays and Criticism” a rather slighting review. While he praised Updike as “the prodigal phrase-maker,” he also buried him: “With so much intelligence and linguistic richness at his disposal, his criticism is largely inconsequential.”

Review watchers may recall that earlier this year, in the March 15 New Yorker, Updike unleashed some rather slighting criticism of his own on Parini’s “Robert Frost: A Life.” “A poet and fiction writer as well as a literary scholar, Parini strikes some nice phrases,” Updike began. Then he turned harsh: “But a certain blandness, even lameness, of style suggests that Parini wearied more than once during the long traverse across the wide scree of accumulated Frost data.”

When I asked Alan Jenkins, deputy editor of the TLS and Parini’s editor there, whether Parini had told him about Updike’s negative New Yorker review before he took the assignment, Jenkins replied, “I wasn’t aware that John Updike had skewered Jay Parini anywhere. But equally I’m not aware of any vendetta or argument between them. If there is such a thing, then perhaps I should have known about it. Its something that Parini might have alerted me to.”

Several years ago, Jenkins recalled, “John Updike took one tremendous pasting in the TLS from Gore Vidal, and that’s the only negative review he’s ever had in the TLS. It struck me as exhaustive, positively assassinatory in its exhaustiveness. It was as if Vidal never wanted Updike to get off the floor again.”

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Jenkins defended Parini’s article as more “balanced” and said that while few would dispute Updike’s novelistic powers, his critical insights may be not be up to the standards of his prose: “What Parini is saying is that Updike doesn’t have anything important or substantial to say, which not many book reviewers do.”

“He’s cad and a bounder — what can I say?” Jenkins added, jokingly, about Parini. “But in all seriousness, I would expect that [disclosure], and I think that is a severe lapse in reviewer integrity, a severe one. I won’t be using Jay Parini as a reviewer again.”

Parini, a professor of English at Middlebury College in Vermont, admitted that he should have told Jenkins about the potential conflict of interest. But, he added, he had written about Updike’s work several times — often positively, sometimes negatively (he panned Updike’s 1996 novel, “In the Beauty of the Lilies,” in the Washington Times) — before Updike wrote about his.

“I wonder if Updike asked his editor at the New Yorker.” Parini said. “I wonder if he should have been reviewing me in that case. That’s more the question.”

According to New Yorker spokeswoman Perri Dorset, “No one here has heard of any feud between Parini and Updike.”

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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