Why I’m Not Mourning John Updike

Why I’m Not Mourning John Updike

There’s no shortage of praise going around for Updike’s work in the wake of his death, and I’ve been hesitant to jump in because well, there’s that prohibition against speaking ill of the dead. For all I know, in his personal life he could have been an exemplar of many fine qualities — I wouldn’t know. He was certainly productive, writing three pages a day over a lifetime he produced more than 40 novels, collections of essays, and short stories.

However, I found his work repellent.

The pervasive and unrelenting misogyny is only a part of what I hated about the airless worlds John Updike created. David Foster Wallace names this quality “phallocentric narcissism” which seems a pretty apt description. The only characters with interiority in his books are the protagonists, and his protagonists are a series of men so stupendously narcissistic as to believe the entire universe exists only to fulfill or thwart their desires. There is no agency in any of the secondary characters, nor is there empathy for the lived experience of any characters except the protagonists.

If exegesis is your thing, go read this terrific entry over at TigerBeatDown, or Anna Shapiro’s piece in the Guardian. I can’t bear to go back into the books to pull quotes. It just depresses me. Just as the many comments justifying or denying that misogyny is a driving force in Updike’s work depress me. These are such old old arguments. Such old old denials. It makes me tired that we’re still, after all this time, having the discussion about whether or not Updike was a misogynist rather than discussing what effect his solipsism and misogynism will have on his legacy.

There’s a whole generation of them — the Great American Novelists: Roth, Bellow, Updike, Mailer (and I’d throw Kundera in even though he’s not American). Triumphalist. Battling it out for their place at the top of the heap. Contemptuous of everyone who isn’t themselves. Dismissive of all artistic projects that they don’t share (which would be all artistic projects other than their own). The voice of my Phd advisor who said about the feminist critique of traditional plot that I wrote for my qualifying exam in literary theory that “just like your subject, the essay didn’t make any sense.” (Exams I passed unanimously, by the way.)

To those who will reply that Updike was of his generation and these things are to be expected and it’s all different now, I’d reply, go into a chain bookstore and give me a count of the serious novels being published by women, novels that don’t have a pink shoe on the cover. It’s enough to make a person want to revert to publishing under gender-neutral initials.

And so whatever John Updike’s qualities as a person, I will not be mourning the the death of his artistic project which was, as far as I could tell, to express a repellent world view in lapidary prose. I am also not mourning the passing of those lions, the ones who believed in singular world views, who believed it was all a contest, a contest that could only have a single champion.

And here’s to the thought that into the inevitable vacuum the passing of the lions will create, that there will be room for more voices, expressing the lived interiority of all those whose existence was denied in those Great American Novels.

4 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Mourning John Updike

  1. Amen.

    I picked up The Widows Of Eastwick at the library a few weeks ago, wondering if it was possible that Updike had written about three old broads in a way that somehow redeemed himself. I hoped to see an old, famous writer do something hard — like show evidence of growth. But, no. It was a retread of every other nauseating depiction of women . . . and the world. I returned it unfinished.

  2. I’m an odd duck in terms of what I have and have not read. I’ve read very little of “the canon,” including the “modern canon” you mention. I’ve often wondered what I was missing by not reading Roth, Mailer, Updike, but I never could quite bring myself to care enough to actually read them. (I’m still interested in Tom Wolfe and expect to get to his work “someday.”) I have, however, read and greatly enjoyed Kundera, I suspect because he was not American. The first book I read by Kundera was “The Joke,” which involves an at-times despicable main character who does some things foolish and some things cruel. I liked that Kundera allowed me, as a reader, to see this foolish cruel character as foolish and cruel without Kundera’s own voice coming in saying, “look at this fool, look how despicable this jerk is.” I felt respected as a reader in a way I hadn’t when reading novels by Americans. I’m interested in revisiting “The Joke” now that you include Kundera in this list, though, because I have no doubt that what you mention — the phallocentric narcissism — is integral to the story, and I wonder how differently it would strike me now, fifteen years later.

  3. Oh, drat, I see I didn’t quite say what I wanted to say, but now it’s time to get the little girl from preschool. Maybe I’ll come up with something better later. Practice, practice. Sigh.

  4. Thanks a million for this, Charlotte. It was indeed a freakish experience to see how much space NYTimes gave to him; made me feel once again that feminist consciousness-raising has made nothing happen…anyway, I’ll be sharing this with my students (we’re doing our fiction unit now). All the best to you, and thanks for your wisdom. Anna

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