Novelist Updike visits UI in tribute to his editor, Maxwell

by Andrea Lynn

John Updike, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, came to the UI on April 24 to help celebrate the life and career of William Maxwell. Maxwell had been his fiction editor at The New Yorker magazine for 30 years.

Maxwell, 88, and a grateful UI alumnus class of 1930, recently donated his papers to the UI Rare Book and Special Collections Library. Some of the items from the new collection, which includes personal correspondence from many of the century's major writers, are on display in the Rare Book Library through May 31.

A pensive, private and soft-voiced Updike told the media in a news conference before his rare public appearance that his former editor was typically "upfront" and that he had a "light touch" with the editor's pencil. A writer in his own right, producing four of his six novels during his 40-year tenure at the magazine, Maxwell was quietly passionate about good writing. "He made you enthusiastic about being a writer," Updike said.

The author of 17 novels, Updike said that in his opinion, the fiction writer is obliged to make connections with his/her audience. "You must feel you are telling ordinary people something they need to know."

And, despite some arguments to the contrary, he claimed that there still are some very good writers under the age of 40, but that they seem to appear - and vanish - with considerable rapidity.

"They fade from the mind because they seem to fade from the world," Updike said. He also alluded to a possible "thinness of the literary soil," but conceded that "that may be an illusion."

With regard to The New Yorker, Updike credited New Yorker magazine creator Harold Ross with building the middle-class readership for the struggling magazine by targeting the newly emerging population of suburbanites, and Updike suggested that after a good deal of experimentation, the current New Yorker editor Tina Brown seems to be "merging her style with the New Yorker."

"She seems a little more at peace with herself," Updike said.

And, Updike noted, as one of the few surviving transitional authors in the magazine's employ: The current powers-that-be "have been very generous to me."

To the large enthusiastic crowd gathered for the Maxwell program at Foellinger Auditorium, Updike confessed after viewing a short video documentary interview with Maxwell, that it was "moving to see him here."

He observed that Maxwell was a product of his heartland (Lincoln, Ill.) upbringing, "sensible and practical," a man who always "had his feet on the ground."

He also was a nurturing editor. "No amount of trouble was too much trouble," Updike said. "Bill Maxwell had a way of making the OK a little bit better, of helping the writer to become his best."

If, at times, Maxwell "protected the writer from his own agreeableness," Updike said, he always "made writing well seem infinitely worthwhile. He made me feel cherished."

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