Friday, May 4, 2012

Why do so many dudes hate Updike?

It's become fashionable, for white men in particular, it seems, to hate on John Updike, presumably on the grounds of his being sexist and maybe racist, and all that being a successful, white, well-off male writer presumably entails. Upon questioning, at least some of these haters reveal they have read little to no Updike. I think it's fine, to a degree, to object to a writer on philosophical grounds without having to read their full oeuvre; you don't always have to experience something firsthand before you can come to an opinion. But these same men seem to have no problem with sexist Hollywood movies like Drive and The Hangover, in fact deriving great pleasure from them. This leads me to believe that many liberal-minded white men are not fully capable of recognizing sexism on their own; instead they feel obligated to agree with David Foster Wallace. The thing is, it's OK to like both Updike and DFW, or, better yet, some of DFW's work and some of Updike's work, but not all of either of their collected works. That's where I stand and it doesn't create any weird feelings of discomfort or cognitive dissonance.

If you're instinctively repulsed by John Updike and think I've got it wrong, please enlighten me: Whence the hatin'?

33 comments:

  1. Newsflash, unless somebody screams in here and says it before me: many liberal-minded white men are not fully capable of recognizing anything on their own.

    I mean, this is why people read the bestsellers. Or, if they've truly got the cash, spend a week on a cruise ship.

    If this is a test, I am not instinctively repulsed by John Updike. I even like rabbits, up to a point, that point being when they enter my garden. Best,

    tpeterson

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    1. Ha, well, this is something I've slowly realized over the past few years.

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  2. This is a perceptive question. I have read next to no Updike -- except light verse and reviews and NY'er stories and things -- and find the idea of him off-putting for reasons I find I cannot articulate. (A roughly equivalent English figure is Anthony Burgess, whom also I find off-putting.) DFW is also off-putting. Maybe in all cases it is the all-purpose smug cleverness that I find grating -- though DFW's essays are even more annoying when they are earnest. I would not have thought of this as a _sexed_ view, though it is true that the "clever" writers I like (Auden, say) are almost all either women or gay men.

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    1. Interestingly enough, my boyfriend (John) did his master's thesis on Anthony Burgess and made it his project for a while to revive interest in him; he felt that he was vastly underrated and that assumptions were made about him based on his most popular book, which isn't his best.

      John has this same vague distaste for Updike, and when pressed I think most of this distaste was based on assumptions about his personal life that came from a bitter, peevish essay Gore Vidal wrote about him after The Beauty of the Lilies came out. The first 10 pages of the essay are an attack on Updike as a guy and don't even mention the book ... and Vidal seems hell-bent on twisting perfectly even-handed and insightful quotations so Updike sounds like some kind of insane jerk.

      A lot of Updike (light verse, late fiction) fits the stereotype, but I think early in his career he was doing really interesting things, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter and character.

      Incidentally, John also dislikes DFW and it seems largely to do with footnotes.

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    2. how can you not like df-dubs.

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  4. I like that you used the word "dudes," and I want to position my response to your post as coming from a guy who is speaking for other guys from the Northwest who perceive themselves (right or wrong) as cultural outsiders.

    I am someone who has never read much Updike and who probably never will, but the same can also be said for Wallace, and the guys with whom once I ran are the same. Indeed, the guys I know who would never pick up Updike are the same ones who would never read Wallace. Yesterday evening on twitter, I wrote that that my take on this is that "upper middle class angst bores them silly," and that the two authors, in the minds of the men I know, are largely equated with a socially privileged world that houses Rabbit Angstrom and inauthentic proto-hipsters who play tennis.

    I think that the books we choose to read, whether we ingest them or only pose with them, inform and create our literary selves just as much as that which we write, and the guys I know are Raymond Carver acolytes who came of age in small Montana towns and blue collar Seattle suburbs while reading Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford writing about the men who were our fathers and, when we went to college and then to graduate school to be writers, these were the writers whom we wanted to be like.

    This is the other way I am positioned in this discussion, and the men I know who have no interest in Wallace or Updike, both, are also fiction writers, and I think that this may have something to do with it. Updike and Wallace, both, represent the apex of achievement within certain stylistic movments. Updike and Roth and Bellow are the old realist guard who reached their maturity even as their black humorist counterparts forged a postmodernism that would stand as an alternative to the popular paradigm. Even if but superficially, the success that Wallace saw and the devotion his readers have for him has bred (even if it is silly and superficial) resentment, and, just as I think Updike once was (and still is), Wallace is now part of the literary establishment and an author against whom some boys of a certain age read and write so that they (fine, I will say it), so that we, may try to define ourselves as the other.

    B.

    ["Edited" to change "pro-hipster" to the intended "proto-hipster.]

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    1. Thanks for reproducing or riffing off some of your interesting comments from Twitter last night. Previously, I had a sense that a lot of "dudes" felt positively toward DFW and negatively toward Updike for vague reasons that basically came down to how devoted they were to "realism." Now I see that there is another group entirely that finds both of them tiresome (too privileged, too stylized, whatever).

      As someone who's read a fair amount of Updike, I can say that his early work was more concerned with working class angst, and the Rabbit series as a whole is really about feeling trapped by conventional social structures, even as one benefits from them.

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    2. As the prole in this discussion, i like tobias wolff the best, then df-dubs, then updike, but i like em all. to the extent i write i am spiritually closest to tw and i grew up middle class in the burbs o chicago. how about a survey!

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  5. I've never read Updike, or David Foster Wallace, or any of the other writers mentioned in any of the comments here, other than a little Auden now and then. My impression, based only on second- and third-hand hearsay, has been more or less as Bugs Dodger describes in the above comment, the stuff about Updike's writing being about upper middle class angst and so on.

    I've had the same impression of Philip Roth (having read none of his writing, having only seen the movie "Goodbye, Columbus") and Saul Bellow (having attempted once to read Herzog, if not getting past page 1 could be called an attempt).

    I read mostly poetry, and prose (whether fiction or non-fiction) has to be strong and compelling, has to really speak to me, for me to stick with it. This is a strong factor in shaping my reading of prose in general.

    By way of giving a sense of where I'm coming from, some fiction writers whose work I've really liked, whose work I seek out and read, include: Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Meridel LeSueur, Graham Greene, Richard Wright, Mark Twain. Years ago I read everything by Kurt Vonnegut I could get my hands on; at the time he'd published about seven or eight books. I've also liked some of the novels of Margaret Atwood and Marge Piercy.

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    1. yeah if the hate is similar with philip roth then i'm generally on board cause that mofo is boring. i never know what the hell he is taking about. mybad for all the roth lovers.

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    2. I've read several Roth novels, but the only one I really thought was great was Sabbath's Theater.

      No one has mentioned Delillo yet. People hate Delillo too, right? White Noise is like one of my top 5 favorite novels!

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  6. I have ready almost ALL Updike (or what's available- I've been collecting his novels since the first one I stole from my 9th Grade English teacher's shelf- Rabbit, Run- for the sex bits, naturally) and I remain in love with his novels and his style. I have ALSO noticed (especially when he died) that it's fashionable for white men to hate Updike. Which is really unfortunate because he was a MASTER prose-writer and if more novelists even ASPIRED to write as beautifully as he did, I might read more newer novels.

    I love Roth's old stuff and I LOVE Saul Bellow, too. I also love Ernest Hemingway. It's weird the stuff I'm willing to be patient enough to read. I have almost no patience for the short stories that get published in literary journals these days, try as I might. I don't have a lot of patience for self-conscious, deconstructed fiction that seems to be written more "against" something than "toward" something.

    I guess I've always liked to be enchanted by fiction. Updike never ever fails to enchant me. :)

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    1. Ooo! I want to throw into the mix, also, that I grew up in poverty (with parents who had middle class upbringings, themselves) in farmy-suburbs of Indianapolis. And I definitely do NOT like DFW.

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    2. Nice to hear from a woman who also likes Updike! Rabbit, Run blew me away when I read it.

      I have never, however, been able to deal with Hemingway's early short fiction, all the short sentences and the making beans in the woods. That is some boring man-dude stuff right there. I like his novels though.

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    3. can we have a follow-on post where we explore the df-dubs hating cause come on.

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    4. Actually it would be interesting to hear why you, a non-literary type (well, less literary on the scale than me and a lot of the people commenting here anyway), likes DFW, why you connect with him. I think a lot of people react negatively to him because it's so stylized as to seem show-offy. Like they read the footnotes as a way of saying "Ooh, look how smart I am, look how much I know, the text can hardly contain my extensive knowledge which I relay oh so wittily.") You know?

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    5. sure yeah i can see why people would think that and maybe there is some truth in that too. i guess one reaction i have to this particular point is, yeah, but the thing is, he is f-in smart. i have only read IJ and some of his essays but based on those i consider him a genius and i basically never use that term. i mean that just in terms of raw talent-- ie there are others' writing who i prefer (eg tobias wolff) but in terms of raw wordpower or whatever i think dfw is off the charts. for "evidence" i just point to IJ, the guy can hold 100,000 words, 10,000 sentences, and 1,000 ideas in his head simultaneously and i think that is pretty badass. i am sure this is totally unconvincing to people who don't like IJ and i am unqualified to push the point further.

      anyway to me the whole footnotes/"how smart am i" thing is a red herring, for me it's just not an issue. i like him b/c i think he is f-in hilarious and hugely entertaining. (i mean check the scene in IJ where the guy is waiting for his pot i mean is that not funny? and there are what like 200 scenes like that in IJ?) for me i really appreciate his intellect and it's just so damn entertaining. i guess here's a way to put it, i think dfw would be this off-the-hook guy to just sit around and get worked up on coffee/beer/whatever with, he would just be so much fun and so stimulating it would be a total blast.

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    6. I basically agree, I find him evidently intelligent as well as entertaining based on what I've read, which does not include Infinite Jest. I'm pretty sure the first thing I read by him was an article on how dictionaries are made from Harpers some ten years ago. It was wonderful! I also like his essays on tennis and cruise ships, am less enamored with "Consider the Lobster." I found his first novel very interesting though it had the usual first-novel flaws.

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  7. I'm one of these dudes. I love making fun of John Updike and am, it turns out, totally white.

    I read a fair bit of Updike when I was young (16-17) and decided I wanted to write fiction. "A&P" was probably just really in my wheelhouse--girls have breasts, life has sadness, etc.--otherwise I can't remember why I kept going to the library and getting Updike books. Turns out most of these were relatively latter day Updike or at least not what I sense are particularly highly regarded books ("Toward the End of Time"?)

    Wikipedia--which I checked to make sure I was remembering the right book--actually quotes a DFW review of TEoT: "It is, of the total 25 Updike books I've read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it's hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape." and calls Updike a "penis with a thesaurus" which, let's be honest, pretty much nails the well-read white-dude reaction I think you're talking about here.

    I'd never read that before today, but that's pretty much a funnier, more pointed version of the conclusion I came to once I started reading a little more and realized, well, I pretty much hate John Updike (though the dude can write, no doubt about that). It's not the sex that does it, exactly--plenty of his contemporaries are as sexed-obsessed--it's the queasy nostalgia that gets wrapped up in the sex, like Updike's male characters regret living in a time where society holds them accountable for wanting to fuck everything. Which, whatever, except that by making it backward-looking, Updike involves a whole lot of history's sexism and racism which he's comfortable ignoring in what I've read. He seems both turned on and mortified by society's evolving morals and wants to hold both positions at once, sort of the ultimate exercise of privilege (which is why he reads as so upper-class NYer guy despite being not at all that).

    In any case, it often results in a bacchanalian drive for the 'heroes' and puritanical condemnation for everyone else. Here's where I guess the argument could be made that Updike is just exploring a particular impulse of the white-male psyche and those who condemn him often do so out of their own shame. But one Rabbit book could have covered that. Instead he thought he needed to write one every era so the country could know how John Updike felt about having sex in it. If he evolved, I haven't read it.

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    1. "girls have breasts, life has sadness" -- ha ha! That is totally what that story is about. And, really, what all stories (by men) are about. (I kid ... OR DO I?)

      "Here's where I guess the argument could be made that Updike is just exploring a particular impulse of the white-male psyche and those who condemn him often do so out of their own shame."

      This is really insightful, Adam, and makes a convincing case for why it seems like women are less likely to react with repulsion, because they don't see themselves in it, though maybe someone already said something to the same effect earlier.

      "But one Rabbit book could have covered that. Instead he thought he needed to write one every era so the country could know how John Updike felt about having sex in it. If he evolved, I haven't read it."

      It sounds like he devolved, rather. I'd certainly never make a case for reading every book he ever wrote, but I do think the complexity of his work at different points in his career gets smoothed over and simplified in a reductive way.

      As a side question, is there anyone who was comparably prolific that kept writing at the same level for decades? Seems like most of the time when I've tried to read more than 4-5 books by the same author, I started to tire of them and notice all the weaknesses. Vonnegut comes to mind.

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    2. Awesome comment A Peterson, I gotta revisit some Updike now.

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  8. I'm glad Brooklyn finally pointed out that Updike is a great prose stylist, up there with Nabokov. That's the main reason to read him. And he was so prolific! Like Joyce Carol Oates, he makes you doubt you're even a real writer. "A penis with a thesaurus" is funny, though, and I get the point. And he was conservative and a Barthian Christian, but I wouldn't hate his writing for that any more than I'd hate Larkin's writing for being that of a Thatcher-lover or Pound's and Celine's writing for being that of fascist anti-semites.

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    1. I think Nabokov and Updike write glorious sentences, but my boyfriend dislikes both of them. I suppose he finds that style of prose overwrought? He also, like Vidal, condemns him on the basis of personal politics/religion, but yeah, I just don't think that stuff has anything to do with his writing. I mean as long as he's not producing Rand-style propaganda, which in my experience he isn't.

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  9. Re: your question, Elisa, if there is anyone comparably prolific to Updike, who kept writing at the same level for decades, I would recommend Wright Morris.

    You could start back in 1942 with My Uncle Dudley, if you are a reader who prefers an exact order, or, if you just want to try one book to see if your readerly mind might be congenial, I'd recommend The Fork River Space Project, quite possibly the greatest book about writing ever written, an ars poetica unequalled, if you will.

    ps, I don't entirely get the hate or even the indifference to DFW and Updike, beyond the contemporary coolness of hate or indifference. I like both John Updike and David Foster Wallace. The world would be a not so rich and less fun place without them. However they are computed, they add up, mist for the grill, one plus one plus one plus. All best,

    tpeterson

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    1. I suppose it's something of a matter of pride for writers to have strong opinions on other writers? This may be shocking for my readers to hear, but there aren't a lot of writers I outright hate. There are, however, plenty of writers I'm completely indifferent to, bored by, or suspect I would dislike if I bothered to read them. I try not to espouse strong opinions on writers I haven't read extensively, and I tend not to read extensively if I'm not interested in the first place.

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  10. DFW does say that he's actually overall a FAN of Updike in his essay in Consider the Lobster. I agree with most of the things that DFW says about Updike in that essay (yes, Updike is a complete solipsist and yes, he did turn out some trite things in the later part of his career), but overall I'm still a huge Updike fan. The Rabbit Tetralogy will always be among my all-time favorites.

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    1. Have you read U and I by Nicholson Baker? It's very funny.

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    2. No, but a good friend of mine said the same thing. It's on my list.

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  11. I might offer a contrasting view of Updike, as one who began to read him while he was still a "young" writer, with everything before him.

    It's useful to note that Updike came from a "respectable" middle-class Pennsylvania background, and that his initial desire was to become (first) a cartoonist, and then a writer of light (comic) verse. This was the consequence of his idolizing the writing in The New Yorker, which was, up until the Tina Brownera , a different magazine than the one it now is. The old spirit of The New Yorker, which began in 1925, was focused on presenting intelligent journalism to a broad market of American readers, but it retained an insularity and snobbishness based on a notion of urban sophistication and a haughty literary cosmopolitanism.

    Updike subscribed to all The New Yorker values from the beginning, and it largely shaped his career as a writer. The Rabbit books were his attempt to get inside the head of the working-class, people he felt he knew well. But as his career developed, it was clear that his main preoccupations lay elsewhere. As a stylist, he possessed a mastery of form from the beginning, showing superior ability not only as a light verse poet, but as a short story writer, novelist, memoirist, essayist, humorist and critic. He famously kept separate desks in his office, one for each kind of writing, and would move from one to the other in turn as he cranked out more copy.

    For me, the more troubling aspect of his work was its burgeoning surfeit. It became clear that the repetition of examples was a compulsion. After Rabbit, he novels began to seem (and feel) formulaic. He wrote with such felicity and ease, that the subject-matter and themes of his work became secondary. That's what we sometimes mean when we refer to a writer as a "great stylist"--that it's a performance. But art isn't just a performance.

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  12. Part II


    The reason we become attached to great works of literature is usually not just because the author is skillful, but because the what of the text is compelling, in a way that the how of the text can never be. Radical Modernism was about deconstructing the overt dominance of the signifier--which is what Stein does, for instance--but the writing world that Updike grew up inside, never accepted the innovations of Modernism (let alone post-Modernism). Updike always wrote "straight" prose, and never deviated.

    His critical side was impressive, but despite his ability to comprehend and appreciate vastly more adventurous work than he himself would ever have attempted, he seemed not to grow as a writer. He's amazingly consistent and predictable.

    Gore Vidal disliked Updike because he saw in him a successful icon of middle-class respectability, morally and aesthetically traditional, even smug in his assumptions. You don't have to dislike Updike to agree with Vidal's assessment, since Vidal himself was in no sense a Modernist, and wrote as if William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton were still contemporary.

    Updike is a very big writer, but a very dogged one. It wouldn't be fair to say that if you'd read one Updike novel, five short stories, ten poems, three reviews and his piece about Ted Williams, you'd have Updike down. But there's enough truth in that to give one pause. Was the Updike of 2005 much different from the Updike of 1965?

    At some point, serious writers have to question what they do, and to transcend "mere" technique. It isn't enough to "master" a style, and spend the next 30-40 years cranking out more of the same. Art isn't about making a living, though Updike managed to do just that without pandering to the public's lower tastes (though Couples comes close). If Updike had continued to write "unconventional" novels, like The Poorhouse Fair, or Of the Farm, we'd probably now regard him as a better artist, but he'd have lived a narrower, restricted private life as a consequence. He didn't choose to teach, and seemed content to be a "professional" living in a small town his whole life. That conventionality is exactly what's wrong with his work, though he may never have been capable of getting beyond his limits.

    Who among us can say that we ever do transcend our limits? Which is why there are so very few literary artists.

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