Ever since John Updike's death last week at 76, the print and electronic media have been filled with appreciations of the author's work, of his versatility and his prodigious output as a novelist, essayist, poet, and literary critic. These paeans have focused, rightly, on his Rabbit novels, his National Book Award, his two Pulitzer Prizes in fiction (a rarity), and his uncanny ability to capture the nuances of everyday life in suburban and small-town Twentieth Century America.
Well and good. The praise is indeed merited. But there is another aspect of this "man of letters" that impresses me. Updike always remained accessible. He took the time to answer fan letters--mailbags of them. Although he would rather have been home in Massachusetts writing, he realized the importance of the author's role in helping the publisher to promote his works. He not only attended countless book signings, but he did so with grace and humor, warmly engaging readers in conversation.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Updike, but my wife, Janet, did. It was at the Printers Row Book Fair in Chicago in 2006, and after the author had been interviewed on the stage of an auditorium, purchasers of his new book queued up for autographs. Janet had ticket No. 216 or something like that, and after more than 90 minutes of inching forward, she handed her book to Updike, asking him to inscribe it to our son. "This is a test, isn't it?" he asked, grinning broadly as he noted that our surname is 12 letters long. He smiled and signed the book exactly as requested and then warmly greeted the next person.
His approach is a lesson to all writers. Having the opportunity to interact with our readers is a privilege, not a burden. Every writer, whether novelist, biographer, poet, historian, or essayist, needs to realize that. Through all his years of fame, John Updike never forgot those who counted the most--his readers.