Updike, Redux

Commenter Michael, who objected to the thrust of my comments about John Updike’s oeuvre a few weeks ago, reports on the recent meeting of his Portland, Maine book club and their discussion of Rabbit at Rest:

There was one fortyish [ed. note:  Michael too is fortyish] female consciencious objector who scheduled a competing girls-nite-out rather than discuss why the Rabbit’s internal monologue several times refers to Mrs. Rabbit as a “dumb mutt”.


Otherwise, and I am barely spinning this, the group was, to quote [my wife and her mother], “blown away.”  I think part of the reason is that Rabbit at Rest finds Updike at the height of his powers – several reviews indicate some sort of perfection of Updike’s craft in this novel.


As the visual artist / art historian in the group put it, “he notices everything”, and as others noticed, the way he jumps from Rabbit licking candied crumbs off his hand “like an anteater” in one sentence and contemplating a plane crash in the next, the sudden, realistic yet jarring changes of scope, are fascinating to follow. The run on sentences are gorgeous and also realistic.


The discussion was on point from beginning to end, and many people were compelled to read favorite passages, which almost never happens.


I think that Adam Gopnik put it far better than I ever could:


“Comedy was his default mode, though, and comedy is made of realism alloyed with love. A note of happiness rings through Updike’s prose, and draws us to it, makes us happy when we read it. It is not a fatuous happiness, or a happiness unaware of death (a preoccupation with death and dying was a steady feature of his work), but neither does it cede too much to mere mortality. One has a sense of someone who—as much as, though with more wit than, Andy Warhol—has spent a good deal of his life liking things. Women’s clothes, their hair, the hybridization of American accents; the way that the hyper-cold of the airline baggage compartment can be felt like a secret in the bag as you unpack—all these images and moments, recalled at random from his work, are not just reported but quietly rhapsodized, registered with love. It is his affections that rise, and that we recall.”

I too admire Updike’s skills as a writer, but as a feminist who believes that women are people too, it’s not “his affections that rise, and that [I] recall.”  It is interesting to note the very severe divide in opinions between men and women commentors in the previous thread, too.  Updike’s work perhaps both documents and serves as a rorshach test for the divide between the sexes among middle class Americans in the last half of the twentieth century, and perhaps the first decade of the twenty-first century as well.  This is not to say that the act of enjoying Updike’s writing is essentially antifeminist, or that feminists can’t enjoy Updike.  It’s to say that Updike, like Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and all writers, was a man of his time.  Reading Updike’s characterizations of women is for me, and I think for many women, like coming across one of those blatantly racist passages in Twain, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway–you know, the ones that make you just sick because they’re so ugly and they remind you that for all of their gifts and their insights into human nature, these writers nevertheless shared the prejudices of their times.

Thanks, Michael, for your report, and I’m glad you had a great discussion of a book you all enjoyed.

32 thoughts on “Updike, Redux

  1. There always will be a divide between male literary sensibilites and female literary tastes. Most women who were influenced by feminism and the change in our consciousness can’t go back to the “male” school of the Updikes, Hemingways, Mailers etc. The sexism is just too sickening, and we can’t read this stuff anymore.

    I even notice this on TV dramas, how within the first 2-3 minutes of a show, I can tell with about 95% accuracy whether women or men wrote the screen play. Sometimes I am geuninely confused about “who wrote it” and then the credits reveal join authorship between a man AND a woman. It’s a fascinating game, and it reminds me that all of TV up to a point where women writers finally broke in is a male point of view.

    I don’t think men can adequately report on the life of women, and have a very biased view of women, because men have seen women in patriarchal captivity, and not as real free human beings in the world.

    So it’s best to read all the “great male” work before you become a feminist, because after you become one, men’s writing becomes unreadable. I’m sure the same thing can be said if you watch the portrayal of blacks in old movies! Horrifying, racist and unwatchable.

    It’s why many black parents in Los Angeles started protesting the teaching of Mark Twain in the public school system and thought his works harmful for their children to read. We need to take this seriously.

    Believe me, there are male academics out there who still sing the praises of the Marquis de Sade! Woman hating and degrading is very much an academic past time even now. I think that’s why women’s studies was invented. I often joke and tell people I minored in men’s studies when I was in college. Confused looks at this. One man said very sincerely, “I didn’t think they had a course of study like that back then.” I smile and say, “well I believe the common word for this course of study is history.” A man got REALLY mad at me for saying this!! I smiled again and said, “Oh can’t men take a joke.” I loved that moment of turning the tables!! Loved it loved it loved it!!! 🙂


  2. While I really don’t read much regular fiction (classic or modern) and can’t speak specifically to Updike, I TOTALLY get where you’re coming from, Historiann (and Satsuma)!

    My personal parallel to this is science fiction — the great “classics” tend to be rampantly sexist, with female characters that are pathetic, bitchy, stupid, vapid, or all of the above. When Buzz gives me a “great” story to read, and I end up with an underwhelmed reaction (to his suprise), it’s typically because the sexism got in the way of the story. And while I can appreciate an innovative plot or idea, I can’t help but be disgusted by a protagonist (and, by extension, author) who is a rampant misogynist; it really decreases the entertainment value for me. Some of those historical great authors had serious issues with women, and it shows.


  3. The question here, for feminists who are avid readers, is whether sexism, racism, homophobia invalidates what made a particular work a classic of its genre in the first place. Certainly, it sucks the enjoyment out of it. But does that make it a bad book?

    Moreover, are we bad readers if we want to see our own values reflected back at us?

    Satsuma, I LOVE your “can’t you take a joke” comeback — I am totally stealing that.


  4. Updike is a darling of physicists, because he wrote an funny, eloquent, and accurate poem about neutrinos. Personally, I much prefer his poetry (and short fiction) to his novels. He does offer evocative imagery, and at times a very telling view of the human mind, but I just can’t bring myself to care about his characters. Rabbit’s story is practically a coming of age narrative, which starts when the protagonist is in his thirties. Rabbit’s sexism (which is difficult to disentangle from Updike’s own) is just one of the traits that turns me off. Updike is, of course, aware of his hero’s failings, but he still wants the reader to feel sympathy for Rabbit—something which I cannot myself muster.

    Erica—A lot of old science fiction is pretty sexist (and sometimes racist too). Oddly, the worst offending authors are usually at their best in stories with no women at all. A lot of these writers envisioned scientific expeditions (to the Antarctic or Andromeda or wherever) that were all male. While this gives the stories a rather sexist foundation, the simple absence of female characters tends to limit the characters’ avenues for sexist behavior. On the other hand, stories with lots of female characters can border on the unreadable. (Compare A. E. van Vogt’s all male masterpiece, The Voyage of the Space Beagle, with The Beast, which is awash with female characters, good and evil, strong and weak, and actually has an explicit anti-rape message, yet which is still so sexist as to be nearly unreadable.)


  5. Just for the record, there are plenty of men out there who find Updike’s sexism distasteful (well, okay, I’m assuming this is true because I happen to be one of them) — and thus don’t much enjoy his work. Even as a high school student I remember feeling uncomfortable with a short story of his — can’t remember which one — and not understanding why no one else in the class felt similarly.


  6. Hey, Candy Man–it’s good to hear from you again! The previous thread was very clearly split along sex lines, so far as I know or can guess.

    I think Notorious asks an important question:

    The question here, for feminists who are avid readers, is whether sexism, racism, homophobia invalidates what made a particular work a classic of its genre in the first place. Certainly, it sucks the enjoyment out of it. But does that make it a bad book?

    This all comes down to taste, I think, as Erica’s and Buzz’s comments suggest. I can recognize Updike’s skill, and even be entertained by some of his work (for example, in the 2 books I discussed in the previous thread.) But do I want to spend my free time reading him? No way. I’d much rather read (for example) Jane Smiley, who has demonstrated such astonishing skill in such a wide variety of fiction genres, or Vladmir Nabokov, who was probably the most skillful writer who ever lived. After all, wasn’t Lolita just a huge prank on all of us? Nabokov’s attempt to make the most loathsome creature he could dream up fascinating and even sympathetic?

    Maybe this is what I dislike about Updike: most of his protagonists seem so terribly similar, and he’s so clearly sympathetic to them. It doesn’t occur to him that they’re in fact very objectionable men, whereas with Nabokov in Lolita, that was the whole joke.


  7. As a male admirer of his fiction, I can understand why women would be uncomfortable with Updike. But I wonder how much of the distaste for Updike’s writing stems from revulsion at his alleged misogyny as opposed to revulsion of male sexuality in general. What specifically about Updike’s fiction qualifies it as misogynyst? I don’t doubt that Updike could be sexist (he was a political reactionary in many ways), but I’d like to see more substance to the accusations. Say what you will about him, but whatever he was it’s simply inaccurate to say that he’s was run of the mill brute who saw women as less than human. Anyone who has read a substantial portion of his oeuvre can see that he was capable of sensitivity toward women.


  8. It’s funny you should mention Nabokov, Historiann, because not only did Nakokov admire Updike’s writing, but he also admitted in a letter to Edmund Wilson that he was prejudiced against women writers. I’m not making any point with that, just thought it was interesting.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that Updike didn’t realize that some of his protagonists were objectionable. In regards to Harry Angstrom, he clearly did.


  9. Sexism or racism doesn’t invalidate any work in my opinion. I love the classics, and sometimes I find the absence of women characters actually less painful. Better to read about men who treat each other well, than to have male characters comment on women badly.

    The thing is, with so much wonderful writing about and by women these days, should I waste my time with the tried and true sexists? And what about the books that were visionary in their women characters that may not have made it past the white male canon creators?

    It’s a toss up. One thing I have loved recently is to see Shakespeare’s plays performed by the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company– compelling and creative and powerful when women assume all the roles. Othello was recently set in fascist Italy with an all woman cast–powerful, scary and great!

    I don’t believe any woman on this thread referred to Updike as a mysogynist, just the mere criticism of men apparently makes men believe women said this about a sainted author. Remember the first rule of the cannon of “great” male authors, one must never critique them using feminist standards, even when they were writing at the height of the feminist movement in America to begin with. I guess that makes me doubt Updikes great “powers” of observation if he couldn’t get the feminist part of the Ford Administration era, for example.

    As for male sexuality, I do believe a lot of feminists find it distasteful at best and pornographic at worst.


  10. “I don’t believe any woman on this thread referred to Updike as a mysogynist, just the mere criticism of men apparently makes men believe women said this about a sainted author.”

    Historianne wrote: “Reading Updike’s characterizations of women is for me, and I think for many women, like coming across one of those blatantly racist passages in Twain, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway–you know, the ones that make you just sick because they’re so ugly”

    This is one example of implied misogyny, whether that word was specifically used or not. I could give other examples. And if I wanted to, I could make glib commments about how mere criticism of a woman’s take on a great male author is enough to make women make petty, evasive points about whether the word “misogyny” was specifically used or not. But I won’t stoop to that level.


  11. Please see the “rules for commenting” at the top left of the page. This is a feminist blog, Don, and it’s not hard to see that I and my readers are hardly the first people to call Updike’s work sexist. You are the only person in this thread (or the previous one on Updike) to use the term “misogynist” with reference to Updike.

    But, there is a simple solution if you don’t like what you see: stop reading, and don’t come back!


  12. Who said you or your commenters were the first to call Updike sexist? You’re plainly not. Neither are you the first to make this claim despite having only read a small fraction of his output. You’re also not the first to be incapable of defending your accusations when called out, preferring instead to make petty insubstantial quibbles while avoiding anything substantial. You are, in fact, one individual in a long line of individuals who is incapable of seeing more to Updike beyond the received wisdom gleamed from the politicaly correct. Maybe you’re even a sad David Foster Wallace fan misled by his embarrassing Updike essay. In any case, Updike was an incredible writer, at his best every bit the equal of a Flaubert or Nabokov (although quite different). For many people, though, this was obscured by the fact that Updike was a white, heterosexual, church-going, political reactionary (despite holding some liberal views), who often wrote about middle-class white people and male sexuality. Updike wasn’t a great thinker, nor did he make a great show of his literary genius like, say, Nabokov, so to middlebrow minds this makes it inconceivable that he could have been genius. Updike’s reputation also doesn’t have the benefit of being burnished by time, but in the future his stock will rise and those who are incapable of recognizing literary genius in their own time, preferring instead to wait until critical consensus is reached and it’s safe and conforming to claim that an author is a genius (like it is with Nabokov now), will be replaced by those who benefit from the clarity of hindsight.

    In any case, this is my last post, I prefer to post on blogs where commenting rules aren’t hypocritically invoked at the least hint of disagreement.


  13. Ah, such a joy to be defended in these lovely feminist blogs after dealing with rampant male mania everywhere else on the Internet. Good show Historiann, three cheers!


  14. I think the difference between outright misogyny and subtler sexism is well understood by most commenters on this thread. An ability to distinguish between the two doesn’t mean that female readers are going to cheerfully accept negative portrayals of women UNLESS they meet some misogynistic standard. To extend my sci-fi parallel (since I’ve never read Updike); the number of authors that obviously really, really hated women were small, but far more were (perhaps unconsciously) sexist or just wrote stupidly about women. I’m not a fan of either sort.

    “The thing is, with so much wonderful writing about and by women these days, should I waste my time with the tried and true sexists?”
    Hear hear! 🙂


  15. Reflecting on the two threads on Updike recently, it’s been interesting. Most people seem willing to accept that literature is ultimately a matter of taste, but in two posts in which I 1) singled out two Updike books for praise, and 2) said that I thought Updike was a skillful writer, I was huffily reprimanded by two men who complained that I wasn’t fully appreciative ENOUGH of Updike. Apparently, saying that he was TEH GREATEST WRITER EVAH is the only thing I’m allowed to say about the man, otherwise I’m scolded for dancing on his grave or subject to demands for “proof.”

    Very strange–it’s almost as though some men think that feminist women aren’t allowed to have their own tastes and preferences. I wouldn’t think of going on someone else’s blog and complaining loudly that their literary tastes differ from mine–what’s the point? And what’s it to anyone else? But then, I’ve written before on gender issues and blogging, especially around feminist issues. Some men just can’t stand it if one random woman whom they’ve never met has an opinion different from theirs.


  16. Oh, and Don Lorenzo–I’m sorry, but your last comment got held up in moderation, and I just now found it. I’m posting it anyway, even though you violate the comments policy here, because it makes you look so classy.


  17. I’m not sure how “Updike is a massively misunderstood literary genius” and “I, as a reader, may be annoyed by offensive stances or viewpoints” are mutually exclusive. But maybe I’m just giggling too much to think straight.


  18. Historiann–

    I really must take exception to being described as one “who complained that [you weren’t] fully appreciative ENOUGH of Updike.” I acknowledged the reservations many women feel towards the Rabbit books right off the bat, and I think it was implicit that I understood that many would not share my high regard for them. As for huffy reprimands, the only instance of this I can think of in terms of our back and forth was the comment you left on the “In Memoriam” Updike post on my own blog. I don’t mind huffy reprimands if they have some basis (which your comment on my post did), but the one in the comment above doesn’t.

    Notorious PhD–

    You ask, “are we bad readers if we want to see our own values reflected back at us?,” My answer is that if that is why you read, then yes, you are. It’s inevitable to a certain point, but one should always fight against it. You’re describing narcissism, and if there was ever a handicap to a broader understanding of others and the outside world, that’s it. It’s sad to see an ostensible scholar write something like that.


    Yeah, men are worthless, aren’t they? The world would just be a better place without them.


  19. Robert–you weren’t the commenter I was thinking of. It was a later commenter down the line. I didn’t want to name names, but I will so now to clear up any confusion–I was referring to Jeremy later in the thread.

    That said, don’t tee off on Notorioius or Satsuma–Satsuma was responding to a particularly belligerent commenter, not to all men in general. And you’re really out of bounds to insult Notorious. I didn’t read her comment that way at all–I thought she was asking a legitimate question, so there’s no reason to impugn her as a scholar.

    I would ask all commenters to please refer to my comments policy. Contrary to Don Lorenzo’s insinuations, I don’t invoke rules arbitrarily when people disagree with me. Rules are rules, they apply to every thread here, and I don’t tolerate insults. You can disagree with people’s ideas, just keep the insults out of your comments.


  20. Once again, for everyone’s benefit: this is a feminist blog. Feminists comment here and share feminist points of view.

    Also, everyone here is allowed to have their own opinions about and tastes in literature. Honestly, I don’t get what is so personal about all of this. We don’t all have to like the same writers! I don’t understand the personal identification with criticism of Updike.


  21. I am beginning to get the distinct impression that some (please note this very specific reservation: some, not all) male readers of this blog, as well as some male commenters in other spheres, really do see both Updike and the world which he represents as an embodiment of themselves and their world.* They appear to identify on a very primal level with Updike, and the responses are thus extremely defensive. Doesn’t excuse some of the rudeness, but it’s perhaps an answer to your question, Historiann, about “what is so personal about all of this.”

    *See, for example, Charles McGrath’s comment in the NY Times (which I quoted in the earlier thread on this subject), where he refers to the Rabbit books as a way for future readers to learn what the twentieth century was “really like” (and ignore the irony for historians of that particular phrase!).


  22. historydoll, perhaps you are right. Actually, your explanation makes complete sense. I really like a lot of writers and their books and stories, but I don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about them.

    Once again, in a post that is essentially all praise for Updike (most of it was Michael’s pro-Updike report of his pro-Updike book club!), my commenters and I get smacked down again for not agreeing totally 100% that Updike is TEH AWESUMM, no questions or objections allowed.



  23. Narcissism? Narcissism? Since when do the values of feminism, which has always emphasized collective action and sisterhood, have anything to do with narcissism? I suspect Mr. Martin of knowing nothing of either. And if I’m supposed to “fight against” reading what reflects my values, does that mean I’m condemned to Ann Coulter? I’m afraid John Updike might reflect too many of my values (I value good writing, for example). Sheesh.


  24. I think dear intellectual sisters that men are unaccustomed to feminist critique within a world that women control. The feminists control this blog, and the rules are laid out for the benefit of feminist intellectual discourse. The most threatening thing for men is to hear feminist commentary on their literary lions. They do everything in their power to silence feminists on malestream TV programs and “news” shows. So when men encounter critiques of Updike, for example, they do take it personally. It’s rare in human history when women gather in intellectual commentary amongst ourselves, and use a woman centric way of knowing and analyzing the arts or politics.

    Men are so accustomed to running the entire academic show over say the last 1000 years or so, that like poor Harold Bloom, well, they’ve become flumoxed and resentful of this usurpation.

    So this may come as a shock to men of a certain generation who were used to dominating classrooms on college campuses, and controlling all discussion in small groups within academy as well. Heck, I even remember the guys hogging all the best seats at the lecture and reading Updike gave on my college campus back in the late 70s. Nor have I forgotten the boys spitting (yes you read that right) spitting on women who were attending the first women’s studies lectures of that era. The guys thought this a cool way to intimidate women in the academy by spitting at us from the balcony. Equal education indeed.

    Since men are used to patriarchy, this blogroll must be disturbing indeed to read, and I know I shouldn’t gloat over ‘revenge of the nerds (I mean feminists), but it is such a tasty bite after all this conservative male dominant resurgence in politics or should I call it reactionary thought?

    Anyway, talks like this energize me, it’s as if I found the thread that continued from those beloved days of the late 70s when the first women’s studies PhD emerged from a big ten university back then. Look at how far we all have come women! Three cheers for our continued delight in learning and our passion to encourage greatness in feminist thought.

    P.S. Robert, my name is spelled S-A-T-S-U-M-A FYI


  25. Historiann, I wasn’t “huffily reprimanding” you for not extolling Updike’s virtues. I honestly have no opinion on whether Updike should be celebrated or damned as a writer — the sum total of Updike that I’ve read amounts to a single short story, which I liked but which also made me uncomfortable in its objectification of women.

    My criticism was based solely on the fact that you were attacking him two days after his death. It was, as you put it, an issue of reverence for the dead, not for Updike in particular. On another blog a couple of years ago, I made the same criticisms of an author who wrote a post calling Pat Tillman a traitor and a terrorist during the very week of his funeral. In that case, I actually agreed with the author to a limited extent — I don’t have a lot of respect for people who volunteer to join the military when the nation’s security isn’t threatened. But I didn’t find it appropriate to make those criticisms of a man whose passing was being grieved by his family at that very moment.


  26. Mr. Martin,

    Satsuma said this:
    “Ah, such a joy to be defended in these lovely feminist blogs after dealing with rampant male mania everywhere else on the Internet”

    Which means she observed that there are a lot of *men* on the Internet saying, “Yeah, women are worthless, aren’t they? The world would just be a better place without them.”, and using their posting skills as dick-waiving, to prove it. We aren’t going on those blogs to hammer them with our manliness or womanliness; we are simply having this discussion here about what we value, which sure as hell isn’t what you value, as shown by your tone or lack of respect.

    Not one anti-masculinist blog can stand unmolested while you’re on the job, right? Sheesh.


  27. “My criticism was based solely on the fact that you were attacking him two days after his death. It was, as you put it, an issue of reverence for the dead, not for Updike in particular.”

    Tell me how Updike, a comfortable man who died a death he could plan for an understand, is any way similar to Tillman, a man who could not control anything about his life because he made the sacrifice of being a soldier in wartime? You demean your argument by conflating both.

    And last I checked, Updike’s work was being criticized, not whether or not he suffered fatal wounds under friendly fire. In general, may we know the rules of mourning for those people whose misuse or paucity of intellect we don’t agree with? There’s a reason why sensitive or grieving people warn others that they will refuse to hear anyone who speaks ill of the dead. You gave no such warning; you didn’t say, “you know, I’d rather hear good things about him,” instead of participate in a forum that would consider both the good and the bad of his work.

    And look, I don’t know if Updike was good to cats or ate small goldfish in his spare time — *we were talking about his work*, which has been considered as skillful and sexist for as long as I have been alive. Since when is discussion of a man’s work off-limits? Isn’t a man’s death the time when we give it full appraisal, since it’s now very likely his body of work will no longer be revised?

    Yes, I’m gonna say it — somehow if Mme. Secretary Clinton died tomorrow, no one on this board would get away with desiring a mourning period, before the trolls would descend, and still we’d be accused of curtailing free speech, for wanting mere respect. You live a public life, and people will judge you publically. That’s the deal they make for fame’s sake.

    Updike got respect here.

    He was also called out as an O.G. sexist, reflected through his work.

    Why do you want an honest appraisal of his record muted until no one talks about him online, when his death stops being fresh or in the news? That’s revisionist history in action, and that silence is never right. Never.


  28. cgeye, I’d just give it a week or two for his family to have their grieving period before the vultures descend. I guarantee you I would make the same argument if Hillary Clinton died, though I don’t like her at all. I’m not trying to silence anyone — I just expressed my views on the subject. (Anyway, at this point, it’s been a week or two, and I don’t really care any more.)


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