What about John Updike?

I’m still suffering over my love-hate relationship with John Updike, a writer I can’t stop admiring no matter how hard I try.

There are many reasons to dislike this pillar of our literary establishment, this modern giant. He has been the epitome of cozy, smug success since his career began in the early 60s. Just look at the smarmy smile on any of his 150 or so book jacket photos. This is a writer who embraces the culture of upper class suburbia, a writer who would have sneered at his peers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, a writer whose stories from the 1960s poked mean fun at hippies and civil rights activists (just read his excellent collection Too Far To Go to find some surprisingly cynical jabs at Martin Luther King, published when King was still alive and not yet a saint).

In fact, John Updike is so easy to hate that I can’t even find an original way to do this; Nicholson Baker devoted an entire, hilarious book U and I to his own jealous obsession with this author.

There’s only one problem: I love John Updike. I recently picked up one of his recent and less successful books, Gertrude and Claudius, which was remaindered for five bucks at Barnes and Noble. This is a modern retelling of the Hamlet legend, based on Shakespeare as well as earlier Danish sources, that focuses on the illicit love affair between Hamlet’s mother and uncle. I picked it up because I’m a bit of a Hamlet buff, and maybe even because I liked the idea of reading an Updike failure, a late-career book that got no media attention and didn’t sell.

Well, guess what? I love this damn book. It’s up there with my favorite Updikes (among them the aforementioned Too Far to Go, Couples, Bech: A Book, and many more I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve read).

I’m not surprised the book didn’t sell or get good reviews, because the book’s ambition is to approach Shakespeare’s sacred territory and compete on Shakespearean terms. The book is written in prose, not verse, and yet the sentences certainly do reach, quite self-consciously, for the gorgeous cadences of iambic rhythm. This is a grand move on the author’s part, equivalent to a pat on his own back. But once you look past the nerviness of this self-comparison, what remains is a book that works, a story with a peculiar angle that strikes true in many ways.

Because John Updike is primarily an author of relationship stories, and because these relationships usually involve extra-marital affairs, it is no surprise that the author identifies deeply with Queen Gertrude as she runs from her husband into the arms of his treacherous brother. I am still in the middle of the book, so I can’t comment on the plot as a whole. But, sentence by sentence, this book is a thrill.

Here’s one sentence, describing the Queen: “Had her beauty a flaw, it was a small gap between her front teeth, as if too broad a smile had once pulled the space forever open.” Lines like this make me realize it may be time for me to let go of my natural inclination to dislike this author, and accept the fact that he is one of the few novelists who can write as well as one of my lifelong literary role models. So, today I let go of the fight and admit what I’ve known all along: John Updike is the Henry James of our time, an absolute master of the private thought publicly expressed, and a writer who will grace the bookshelves of eternity.

What do you think about John Updike?

5 Responses

  1. New YorkerI thought this was
    New Yorker

    I thought this was an interesting post. It just so happens I’m a closet New Yorker reader – no longer! – and try as I might, I can never stay away from Updike. Any time he has a short piece of fiction, or an essay, or anything else, I gravitate toward it. Actually, the first thing I do is search for his name, and I hate it because you can tell by his writings that he’s stuck on himself. But for some reason I’m constantly drawn back to reading him as much as I try and stay away. It’s such a friggin catch-22 I can’t stand it! I’m even worried that he might stumble upon these posts and have these words go to his head and get even more self important! I’ve often asked myself why I like reading this guy so much when I dislike him so much. I think it’s because I admire him as a writer, but as a person (the little bit that comes through in the writing) there’s not much there that I like, which of course is totally unfounded because I don’t even know the guy. That having been said, I’ve never read any of his books and I’ll keep resisting the urge to do so, only because just reading him in the New Yorker makes me feel like I’m contributing to his self-importance. And that just goes to show what kind of power he has as a writer – so based on those standards – he must be damn good. Maybe a little too damn good!

  2. That’s an interesting
    That’s an interesting assessment. I have to admit, I haven’t read Updike. All I remember is Rabbit this and Rabbit that in all the reviews in magazines I used to read. But I like how you and Levi describe your feelings about Updike. It reminds me of my attitude toward Pete Townsend. This may be stretch comparison, but here’s what I mean:

    I became a Who fan after seeing them in the movie Woodstock. I started buying all their albums.
    I was taken aback a couple of years later when I read some of Townsend’s comments in interviews. Because Woodstock was so oriented to the “hippie generation” of peace, love, & saving the planet, I assumed he was down with all that. But he said he didn’t like Woodstock. He was not humble at all, in fact, he was somewhat of an elitist, charging that Keith Richards couldn’t tune a guitar and shit like that. He came across as a destructive, plastic loving, self-centered brat. But I couldn’t help liking the guy anyway. I admire his talent still. Maybe I recognized something of myself in Townsend; that part of myself that “reverse hippie guilt” mandated be scorned and denied.

  3. My Favorite UpdikesSounds
    My Favorite Updikes

    Sounds like a new sitcom … Well he’s got the three critical S’s — smarm, smugness and sneer … plus he can write an ok book (although I’m not into all of that flow crap illustrated by the line you chose). I’m not sure why we have to hate on the Updike though — because he’s bad and it shows? Writing aside, anyone who’s all for poking some mean fun (and at hippies no less!) is alright in my book.

  4. Well, what fun is it being
    Well, what fun is it being up-and-coming alternative writers if we can’t hate on the establishment’s shining star? But, yes, I am letting go of the hate. Updike is just too brilliant, too good to read.

    I envy writers of other ages with better effigies to defile, though, like T. S. Eliot’s rampages against Swinburne. Now there was an establishment celebrity it must have been pure pleasure to take down.

  5. Updike, yeahIs that what
    Updike, yeah

    Is that what really goes on in suburbia? Being a country boy I’m easily intimidated. He sure does write beautiful sentences though. I’ll put up with a lot for a sparkler here and there.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!