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Whither Updike?

PUBLISHED: January 15, 2009

A few months back in The Sunday Times, the controversy-prone British journalist Rod Liddle wondered: “Has the reputation of any novelist fallen quite so far and so quickly as that of John Updike?” In answer to this question, Liddle compares Updike’s literary stock to that of fellow mid-century solipsists Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (though, interestingly, not Norman Mailer). The rest of the piece then swerves off into a discussion of sex in literature, arguing that Updike’s 1968 novel Couples “has a good claim to being the first mainstream up-market novel that really did sex, the first novel for the middle-class mass market to have given sex a good seeing to.” Now, I don’t see nothing wrong with a little literary bump and grind and, if I could make out what he is arguing, I might even agree with Liddle’s thesis. But to my mind, the question of Updike’s falling reputation is far more interesting.

Rabbit at Rest Cover

F. Scott Fitzgerald said famously (and perhaps apocryphally) that writers seeking to secure their reputations should aim to please the housewives of today, the college professors of twenty years from now, and the high school students of the next century. As sardonically as this maxim may have been intended, it does a tidy job of slicing up the various categories of readers in this country: those who read for pleasure, those who read for a living, and those who read because they are forced to. And the formula certainly has worked for Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby was a bestseller in its own day, placed second on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century, and is one of the top ten most read books in American high schools. In the absence of a literary stock market (or any other solid measure of literary reputation) Fitzgerald’s formula is the best means of gauging a writer’s current and future reputation.

Updike has traditionally fared quite well among those proverbial housewives of today, the pleasure-reading first draft of reputation. His Rabbit series won two Pulitzer Prizes, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and was a close runner up to Beloved in the New York Times’ recent survey, which asked 125 prominent writers and editors to name the best book of American fiction in the past twenty five years. Even recent clunkers such as The Widows of Eastwick scurry up bestseller lists like eager squirrels while garnering praise from book reviewers and readers alike. His short stories and book reviews appear in the New Yorker with shocking regularity and he has won almost every prize available to American writers. So where’s the reputation problem?

As those persnickety proverbial college professors begin looking back on the late twentieth century, Updike’s reputation has begun to suffer. Perhaps his patrician earnestness makes him an easy target. Perhaps he truly is overrated. In any case, Updike has been subject to some particularly brutal takedowns in the past fifteen or so years. In a 1996 piece in the Times Literary Supplement, Gore Vidal wrote that Updike’s work shows an “ignorance of history and politics and people unlike himself: in this he is a standard American and so typical of what (former) Vice-President Agnew once called the greatest nation in the country.” David Foster Wallace calls him “both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.” And in his new book, How Fiction Works, fellow New Yorker critic James Woods takes Updike to task for his floppy prose, saying that his overwrought descriptions “freeze detail into a cult of itself.” But perhaps it is unfair to judge a writer on the basis of potentially jealous and otherwise-biased contemporaries.

How will Updike’s reputation fare in the future? No one can know what the high school English teachers of the future will enjoy reading. But it’s hard to imagine a world in which Rabbit Angstrom replaces Jay Gatsby as the Great American protagonist. Updike’s best chances probably lie in the upper-level literature seminars of the next century. Rabbit Angstrom could make a good example of mid 20th century white male suburban angst. Or perhaps Couples will be taught as an illustration of 1960s sexual mores. But when you consider that Updike’s novels will be elbowing for syllabus space with Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, Saul Bellow, Phillip Roth, Michael Chabon, and Cormac McCarthy, it’s hard to see him faring very well.


Roderick Davis's picture
Roderick Davis · 13 years ago
I, too, “don’t see nothing wrong with a little literary bump and grind ” (par. 1), but to see “Couples” as illustrating “1960 sexual morays” (par. 5) would doubtless offend the good folk of Morayshire in Scotland ,just as it originally affronted the mores of my commmunity in Connecticut.
Waldo Jaquith's picture
I liked this post better when mores was misspelled. :)
Michael's picture
Michael · 13 years ago
Me too. Bring back the morays!
Jef Benedetti's picture
The day John Updike died By Jef Benedetti Upon reading of the death of John Updike, the boy put down the papers he was selling. Today would be different, he thought. Today, now that Updike the poet, the philanderer, the wordsmith was dead, Ted Kennison thought he might have a chance of being an award-winning writer. The world needed someone like him. Now they have me, he thought. Kennison, 10, knew Updike professionally, through the latter’s words on paper and the thoughts they engendered. Reading Updike in his parents’ old New Yorker magazines used to be a penance, one a 7 year-old voracious reader should have loved, but loathed. It was only after reading Rabbit Run that he got it. Updike wasn’t just a writer. He wasn’t just a guy with a big nose who liked the ladies; he married two of them, after all. But there was just something about the guy Ted Kennison couldn’t put his diminuitive right middle finger on, but one he could stick his skinny left middle finger up to. Kennison, slight of frame but broad of mind, liked the way Updike could turn a phrase, so much so that he was jealous. “This guy is good,” he would tell his parents after reading one of Updike’s decades-old New Yorker pieces. “It’s like he’s there, in the story, telling you all about it. He knows what to say and it seems like he’s saying to me, not anyone else.” Ted’s dad, Sam, used to tell the story of how one day, Sam was walking along the street in New York when he literally ran into Updike, who was striding to a meeting. Updike bent over the 18 year old Sam, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Hey kid, you all right?” Sam would tell the story over and over. Recognizing the tallish Updike, Sam reached up a hand to him. “I know you. You’re John Updike,” Sam retold countless times. “Does that make your ass hurt any less?” Updike chortled back. Updike may never have been comfortable with his own celebrity, except for that day, Sam would say time and again. “So there he was, looking down at me, with people walking past us. He reaches down with his bony but strong right hand – the guy was right-handed, you could tell by the size of that bear paw – and he says to me, ‘Kid, get up or I’m going to have to leave you here. I have a meeting to get to,’” Sam would say. “So you’re going to leave me here, on the sidewalk?” At that point, Sam recounted, Updike reached down with both hands to help him up, but the shoulder bag Updike carried accidentally slipped off Updike’s shoulders, swung around and bopped Sam right in the kisser, sending him back to the Manhattan pavement. “Come on, let’s get you up,” at which point Updike flicked aside the shoulder bag strap, grabbed Sam’s shoulders with two Andre the Giant-sized hands and lifted him up effortlessly to his feet. “You okay?” Updike said. “Yeah thanks,” Sam said. “Where you headed?” “I’ve got a meeting with the brain trust, so I better not be late,” and then, he reached down, grabbed his bag, and within two strides, he had been swallowed up by the crowd heading down the sidewalk of the city that never sleeps. “And that’s how I met John Updike,” Sam would say proudly in retelling the life-altering event. And it was life-altering. Though they never exchanged names or more than 50 words, Sam knew from that point that he wanted to be a writer. Maybe so he could knock kids down on the street, pick them up and inspire them to a life of letters. “That’s why it’s important to use your brain. Remember everything,” Sam said to his young son, who was seated at the computer table at home, stuck in a corner of the living room next to a window that looked out on the brownstone across the street. So on the day John Updike died, little Ted Kennison began to write the story of his dad’s encounter with the great Updike, a man of letters whom no one and everyone liked. Maybe someday, he thought. Maybe someday.

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