“It’s not cool to like the writing of John Updike,” National Review‘s Michael Potemra declares in “Looking at Updike, Again.” “But it’s the right thing to do.”
Wasn’t that what actor Wilford Brimley told us about eating oatmeal?
Potemra explains that the “anti-feminist rap against Updike deserves, in our current cultural plight, a little more attention. The locus classicus of this opinion was the famous phrase of David Foster Wallace, who quoted a female friend’s gibe that Updike was ‘a penis with a thesaurus.’ Now, David Foster Wallace has basically been canonized as a secular saint, and to be dismissed by him in this fashion amounts to having the phrase NOT. COOL. branded on your forehead.”
Potemra was apparently inspired to reconsider Updike after reading a New Republic book review of Adam Begley’s Updike by William Deresiewicz, whom he quotes:
“Updike—and Mailer, and Roth, and the other men (and women) of their generation—were situated at a complicated juncture in the history of sexuality. They came of age before the revolution, but not so long before that they couldn’t try to join it. Sexual freedom descended on them not as a birthright, but as a miracle. Of course they went a little wild. When the Pill came out in 1960, the oldest member of the baby boom was fourteen. Updike was 28. If he spent a lot of time thinking about sex, it’s not a big surprise. Updike, like his contemporaries, was also too early for feminism. That may not be conducive to the most progressive attitudes . . . but it also means that Updike stood between the old and new Victorianisms.”
Potemra adds, “Deresiewicz is pointing to something important: Updike, as a man of his generation, did not view ideologizing about men and women to be his basic calling in life. It was sufficient for him to watch men and women, to notice, and to record his observations in some of the best prose ever produced by an American writer.”