Irwin Shaw, John Updike, and Donald Trump

August 8, 2017

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

So. I read more by and about Irwin Shaw. I read Shaw’s end-of-career collection of short stories and his most successful novel, The Young Lions, and also the excellent biography by Michael Shnayerson. I also read Adam Begley’s recent biography of John Updike, which was also very good, and it made be sad that probably very few people actually read it. Back in the old days, a major biography of a major writer would’ve had a chance of attracting some readers.

John Updike was a master of the slice of life and also created one very memorable character in Rabbit. Irwin Shaw was known as a “storyteller” but I’m not quite sure what that means, as his stories didn’t have such memorable plots. Kinda like a composer whose music is engrossing but at the same time has no memorable tunes. The guy was no John Le Carre or Stephen King.

In his New York Times obituary, Herbert Mitgang wrote, “Stylistically, Mr. Shaw’s short stories were noted for their directness of language, the quick strokes with which he established his different characters, and a strong sense of plotting.” Well put. Quick strokes. His characters didn’t come to life, but their situations and predicaments did. In that way he had a lot in common with Updike.

One thing Shaw did have was a combination of emotional sympathy, real-world grit, and social observation. Some similarity here with John O’Hara, but O’Hara’s situations always seemed a bit more schematic to me, whereas Shaw’s characters seem to be in real situations (even if they’re not, ultimately, real characters).

Updike and Shaw had different career trajectories. Updike started at the top and stayed here. Shaw started at the top and worked his way down. OK, even at the end he was selling lots of copies, but his books weren’t getting much respect (and, at least according to his biographer, they had some strong moments but they weren’t great; I can’t bring myself to try to read these novels myself). On the other hand, I’ve tried to read a couple of Updike’s later novels and I wasn’t so impressed. From my perspective, Updike redeemed himself by writing a lot of excellent literary journalism. As they got older, both Updike and Shaw reduced their output of short stories, maintaining the high quality in both cases.

Speaking of John Updike, if he were around today I expect he’d’ve had something to say about those rural Pennsylvanians who voted for Donald Trump. Being a rural Pennsylvanian. And John O’Hara, as a Pennsylvanian, and Roman Catholic, and an all-around resentful person: he would’ve had something to say about Trump voters from all those groups. Then we could bring in Lorrie Moore to explain Hillary Clinton voters to us. Hey, here it is—ok, that didn’t work: Moore doesn’t like Clinton. Hmmm, lots of people don’t like Hillary Clinton, but she did get 51% of the two-party vote. We’ll have to find some expert to explain those voters to us.

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