WaPo Showdown: Obit v. Appreciation
Competition makes everyone better, goes the truism. Proof, this morning at least, lies on pages A1 and C1 of the Washington Post. After a great deal of consultation yesterday, managers at the paper decided they'd be covering the death of novelist John Updike with both a news obituary as well as an "Appreciation" on the front page of the Style section. This Doublemint treatment of fallen cultural heroes has come under fire of late from the paper's top editors; the new guard at the Post is concerned about duplication at a time when two is starting to feel like a luxury number.
The lesson from today's Updike overlap is that the paper's tradition of Appreciation appears to be exerting a gravitational pull of sorts on the obit desk. Matt Schudel's A1 news obit, after all, feels very Appreciational at many points, complete with some deft keyboard flourishes, such as:
"Updike was best known for peering into the bedrooms and unquiet minds of suburban couples and small-town entrepreneurs in dozens of novels and stories that mirrored America's march from postwar optimism to the dimming dreams of a chastened generation."
And: "Updike may have been the finest prose stylist of his generation, with a precisely calibrated command of observation, pacing and diction that made his novels and essays extended poetic evocations."
Pretty nice work there.
Now let's check out a couple of excerpts from the Appreciation, written by Henry Allen, who retells a personal encounter with Updike:
"His self-possession seemed all the more remarkable for his wry mildness. He looked like the A student and only child that he was, but had a certain physicality, as if he might be surprisingly good at one sport but no others."
And an observation: "Twain gave us the Mississippi at night, and Hemingway gave us his edgy woods and cities, particularly in his early work, but Updike did it for his whole career, in good books and mediocre ones, essays, criticism and poetry. He did it all."
Allen also notes that Updike was prone to "slip into preciousness now and then," a tendency that Allen, given his own little touches, ought to be a pro at spotting.
Both Schudel and Allen have done excellent work on deadline. Schudel's obit, of course, has more facts and bio kinda information. Though Allen has his personal anecdote–at a New York gallery–it doesn't really shine much light on the subject. Even so, I'll give the nod to the Appreciation in this case, primarily because of the following graph:
He once wrote of an upbringing by a schoolteacher father and an aspiring-writer mother who "accommodated . . . my strange ambition to be glamorous." But he never was glamorous. No head-butting with Norman Mailer, no epic drinking bouts in the manner of Hemingway, no swanning about the Hamptons like Truman Capote. He eschewed the visceral expressionism of Jack Kerouac, and the existentialism and irony of everyone else. He believed in that most questioned entity of arts and philsophy in our time, reality, as given by a God who occupied much of his writing. Just to be sure that glamour didn't grab him, and just as his writing career began to take off in the 1950s, he left the "cultural hassle" of New York and settled his family in Ipswich, Mass., a suburb of Boston, where no one is glamorous.