John Updike

File under: Overrated.

Written anything good (or I mean great) other than a few books out of the Rabbit series, error3

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8 thoughts on “John Updike”

  1. Gore Vidal called him “the Devil incarnate”. I think there was a reason for some animosity between the two of them, but I’ve forgotten what it was. But what I remember of Vidal’s assessment of Updike’s writing pretty much accords with what little I’ve read of Updike. I recall Vidal being daunted by Updike’s ‘interminable lists’, and sure enough the first Rabbit novel ( as I remember – it’s been a long time, so I can’t swear to this) starts with an inventory of his character’s kitchen cupboards – content, brand etc. … on and on forever, as if he was trying to reproduce James Joyce’s attempt (as he said) in Ulysses to make his reader know his way round Dublin like the back of his hand, except on the domestic scale – a recreation of the artefacts of the late 50s/early 60s culture. A limited ambition, and one more accessibly achieved by ‘Madmen’ (the HBO series). Then ‘Rabbit’ gets in his car and drives south to work off some conflict he was having in his head, which as I remember was completely banal. Then I lost interest. I know that Updike fans don’t consider the first Rabbit novel very good, so maybe I should withhold my judgement until I’ve read the second or third; but really I’m happy to take Vidal’s word for it, and spare myself the work. Vidal has taste, and his essays are a pure pleasure, but his own novels it has to be said are not very great. Vidal’s novels roughly fall into 2 categories: light, zany semi-science fiction novels like Myra and Myron which are pretty good and easy reads, sort-of like Kurt Vonnegut – very similar in fact. Then, there’s some historical novels in the same pulp fiction style – like Creation and Julian – which are also very readable and interesting, though you wouldn’t quite call them ‘literary’ ( maybe no bad thing). But there’s the other category, his ‘serious’ work, his ‘history of the American Empire’ series. And this is a real shame, because his subject matter and his take on it are SO interesting, but his presentation of it is SO unreadable; and this seems to be the unanimous verdict on these books. They are massive, but they have little plot or characterisation to engage you and propel you through them – the dialog is just obviously Vidal’s thoughts, rather than arising from coherent characters. I wish he would just write a straightforward history.
    But I digress, obviously. Updike and Roth seem two of a kind – middlebrow colour-supplement favourites who sell impressively and consistently but whose appeal to ANYONE seems hard to pin down. But, nonetheless I think I’ve pinned it down. What both of these people share, whether this is contrived or real, seems to me to be and almost complete lack of experience with other people, especially women, and they seem permanently stuck in the 1950s – they write about the 60s onwards, but not as if they have any personal experience, or contact with anyone who has lived through these times. There is almost nothing, in their characters that a hermit couldn’t construct from late 50s/early 60s tv shows or readers digests. And if there’s anything ‘offbeat’ about their characters, it’s SMALL – like in the world of the 50s mad magazine when wearing suede shoes could seem ‘zany’ and daring. They are square and uptight, and they write characters who are so repressed and have such a limited range of movement psychologically that they effectively HAVE no characters! Roth and Updike write interminably about the mental lives of characters who have NO mental life. And if these characters are faced with some dilemma that might allow for some comment on the world we live in, well it’s usually a dilemma so banal that it’s laughable. So who are these books for? Who buys more than one of these? Well, all the hype in the colour supplements must help, but you can’t sustain a career on one-off sales to people who don’t come back. Well, would you find any racy sex, or violence, or politics (of any kind) in any of their books? Nothing that you couldn’t get into the Readers Digest. And I guess that’s their audience – the slightly more educated end of the sort of people who make up Evangelicals and Christian zionists for instance, people who are every bit as limited as Roth’s and Updike’s characters, people who don’t want to be shocked but fancy trying something ‘ a bit thoughtful’. As the recently deceased Tuli (they don’t make jews like that anymore) Kupferberg said ” they need a red-hot poker up their ass before they even FEEL a think!”
    Well, these people are entitled to have their tastes catered for, but surely they could find someone less boring – Larry MacMurtry springs to mind as a a good, staid but dependably entertaining writer. And there are plenty more without getting weird like Pynchon and Tom Robbins. What do you think of Cormac MacCarthy? I haven’t read any of him yet.

    And if they weren’t so uptight, Roth and Updike fans could find a lot of fun in the writers who are the collective Dickenses of modern America – the detective writers, who can draw great characters, tell great stories, and manage some pithy observations on modern life – James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Walter Mosley, Dennis LeHane, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, George Pellecanos, Carl Hiassen, Robert Crais, Ed McBain, Michael Connelly and more I’ll probably kick myself for forgetting to mention

  2. Lafayette have you read Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm. Now there’s someone who can write.

  3. I forgot Portnoy’s complaint, but it seems Roth has been trying to live that down ever since.

    I’ve got ‘Man With the Golden Arm’ – part of my enormous collection of books I mean to read some day. Is ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ any good? I love the Frank Sinatra film of Golden Arm. I like Sinatra better as an actor than a singer.

  4. Don’t write him off completely. I agree he’s highly overrated but he was an accomplished short-story writer. Reading “Pigeon Feathers” proves it. I think he was a bit too language-oriented, detail-focused (as opposed to grand ideas) and the novel wasn’t really his forte. It let him just write and write and write, which is what he did, when he should have been studying. Joyce said he could barely write three sentences a day. Flaubert said similar things. It shows. They took their time and suffered. I think it was Will Self who said of Updike, “he’s never had an unpublished thought.” True. He barely edited. And his ideas weren’t very original.

    His “Couples” was kind of fun for all the sex but it just left you feeling empty afterward. You have to provide more than just exposition of technique and pretty language in a novel.

    Assessment: He wasn’t a genius. But he had talent. Don’t waste too much time on him but appreciate some of his work.

    Someone mentioned McCarthy? I used to think he was the best new American writer until he came out with “The Road”. Sucks. Coarse, grave, manly prose, dull plot, allegorical, fairly vapid ideas. I mean, it’s a tier above the majority, but he’s gone downhill. “Blood Meridian” gets my vote for best work in last 25 yrs. Pynchon’s okay, but he’s written a lot of crap also. Literature moves like a snail. The 10s, 20s and 30s were exceptional times and I daresay we might never have such an explosion of talent again.

  5. I have to admit, I enjoyed Updike’s short story, “A&P”:

    Maybe it was because I could relate to it from my own life experiences.

    I will grant you though, John Updike is kind of slow and boring to read.

    I do want to read one of his last novels though, called “Terrorist”:

    Before anyone says it…No, I can’t relate to the story plot line. It just seems like an interesting topic for a rather well known and received American fiction author to tackle.

    1. The short stuff is said to be very good. And I actually really enjoyed his lit crit.

      I guess my whole problem with the guy is generational. He is my father’s generation, and I had endless wars with those guys, physical, emotional, and otherwise. They treated me like shit for many years and I have never forgotten it. Updike and Roth just don’t speak to me. They’re writing for my Dad’s generation, and that ain’t me. It’s almost The Enemy, actually, especially with their world-views. They are squares.

      1. Yes, this I have seen. I saw that in my own Father’s relation to my Grandfather, at least on my American half of the line.

        The WWII generation versus the baby-boomer generation. Hard-ass vs. Hippie. Those who trust the system, against those who want to change it, and make it new and better.

        I could not think of two groups of folks with different world views. 🙂

        Then there are us “Generation X” types…No one gives a shit. 😀

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