One of our readers has sent an excerpt from a 2014 book by literary critic Terry Eagleton (How to Read Literature) that compares the writing style of Evelyn Waugh to that of John Updike. In both cases samples are taken from their fiction–Waugh’s from his 1947 short story “Tactical Exercise” and Updike’s from his novel Rabbit at Rest. The excerpt appears on the website Marxist Update in which Waugh’s prose is described by Eagleton as having:
…none of the self-conscious sculpturedness of the Updike piece, and is surely all the better for it. Waugh’s prose is crisp, pure and economical. It is reticent and unshowy, as though unaware of the skill with which, for example, it manages to steer a single sentence from ‘They reached the village’ to ‘the serene arc of the horizon’ through so many sub-clauses with no sense of strain or artifice. This sense of expansiveness, of both syntax and landscape, is counterpointed by the terse ‘Here was the house’, which signals a halt both in the story and in the way it is being delivered. ‘A train journey of normal discomfort’ is a pleasantly sardonic touch. ‘Archaic’ might be an adjective too far, but the rhythmic balance of the lines is deeply admirable. There is an air of quiet efficiency about the whole extract. The landscape is portrayed in a set of quick, deft strokes which brings it alive without cluttering the text with too much detail. Waugh’s prose has an honesty and hard-edged realism about it which show up well in contrast to Updike.
Eagleton goes on to compare Waugh’s prose to that of William Faulkner in a passage from his novel Absalom, Absalom. Faulkner’s prose is overwritten but in a different way from that of Updike.
A blogger on the website of the John Updike Society has taken issue with Eagleton:
We won’t take Prof. Eagleton to task for that rambling and redundant unpolished paragraph, for if we did, it would betray a bias against spontaneous and unpolished writing, as opposed to Eagleton’s bias against the polished. As for methodology, Eagleton contrasts Updike’s paragraphs with those of Evelyn Waugh’s, comparing apples and oranges in various ways (poet-writer vs. writer alone, American vs. British, etc.) and praising her [sic] “honesty and hard-edged realism about it which show up well in contrast to Updike.” Faulkner receives similar praise…
Eagleton has been outspoken in his leftist political views which sometimes influence his critical opinions. That influence seems to surface more in response to the social or political content of the work he is discussing than when he deals with more technical matters such as style.
The texts of all three writers under discussion are available in original posting linked above. The full text of Waugh’s short story “Tactical Exercise” is available in his Complete Stories. Thanks to Dave Lull for sending us these postings.