The Washington Post published a list of “50 notable works of nonfiction,” and it’s no surprise that the much-praised biography Updike, by Adam Begley, made the list.

Entries are alphabetical, so Updike comes near the end, and the annotation is short but sweet:

“Begley not only chronicles Updike’s life but also manages to produce a major work of criticism.”

You have to be a subscriber to access the full story, but The Wall Street Journal also included Updike in a round-up of “Gift Books: Biography.” Here’s what they had to say about Begley’s bio:

“Elegantly written as well as psychologically acute, both John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton, 765 pages, $39.95) and Adam Begley’s Updike (Harper, 558 pages, $29.99) superbly chronicle the second half of the 20th century from the vantage point of two very different American authors. Tennessee Williams, the consummate outsider, said he wanted to speak the truth as he saw it, but his romance with the theater brought him pleasure as well as self-consuming pain. Copiously drawing on Williams’s stunning letters and journals, Mr. Lahr balances quotation and interpretation, sympathy and criticism, in this searing and unforgettable portrait of the artist who gave voice to the repressed, the reviled and the restless. And in his fond but gimlet-eyed depiction of John Updike, a consummate insider, Adam Begley depicts the celebrated author as professional writer and proficient evader. Mr. Begley’s Updike comes across as vigorously self-confident and tacitly aggressive, as well as frank and furtive. As the author notes, “biography ought to give a sense of what its subject was like to shake hands with,” and he accomplishes just that in this lucid, elegant and not-to-be missed book.”

Ed Smith posted a new installment in his New Statesman column, “Ed Smith’s Left Field,” in which he considers Russell Brand in the context of Tom Wolfe in the context of John Updike and other writers who slammed Wolfe for A Man in Full.

Wolfe’s response was to build another bonfire of “the vanities”:  “Bad? Why should I feel bad? Now I’ve got all three . . . Larry, Curly and Moe. Updike, Mailer and Irving. My three stooges.”

Smith writes, “Given Updike’s reputation as the great man of American letters, it was an attack of thrilling bravery. Wolfe is contemptuous of Updike’s suggestion that there aren’t enough intelligent readers to sustain ‘literary’ writing. ‘The novel is dying,’ Wolfe replied, ‘not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It needs . . . food . . . The revolution of the 21st century, if the arts are to survived, will have a name to which no ism can easily be attached. It will be called ‘content’.”

“Tom Wolfe always cuts through modish nonsense. I wonder what he’d make of Russell Brand?”

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The John Updike Society: Call for Papers

The John Updike Society will sponsor two sessions at the American Literature Association Conference, May 21-24, 2015 at West Copley Place, Boston Mass.

Papers are welcome on any aspect of John Updike’s life and work, including (especially?) comparisons to other authors. Send abstracts to: Peter Quinones, Sessions Coordinator at peterquinones79@hotmail.com.

We also need two moderators, one for each panel. Please contact Peter Quinones if you are interested in being a moderator. The deadline for submission is January 20. Peter will acknowledge receiving your abstract within a day or two of receiving it and notify those selected for participation by January 28. Thank you in advance for your willingness to share your insights on Updike with the greater literary community. Presenters must register for the conference, and more information will be provided later. Presenters should also be members of the Society, but dues are minimal: regular dues are $25/year and dues for grad students and retirees are $20/year. We welcome all who enjoy Updike’s work.

Earlier today, Victoria Zhuang, a Harvard Crimson staffer, posted a tribute to John Updike in the guise of a reading recommendation:  “Staff Rec: ‘Higher Gossip'; Tribute to a Prose Poet.” 

After sharing the emotion she felt upon hearing of Updike’s death, she calls the posthumously published Higher Gossip “a kind of chattering astride the grave” and notes, “The incredible thing about Updike, a quality rarely native to any other contemporary writer, is that his unmistakable prodding touch is discernible in each miscellaneous fragment, however stray. . . .

“Updike was fascinated with everything in the world, a veritable humanist astronaut. He is also a humorous observer, though a supremely self-conscious one whose strains of narcissism and misogyny, present here as elsewhere in his work, are probably only rescued by his being John Updike.”

The Millions posted an essay by Michael Bourne titled “Magical Thinking: Talent and the Cult of Craft,” which prominently features John Updike.

“It is, of course, impossible to write a good book without a deep appreciation of how language and stories work, but it doesn’t follow that successful writers have simply worked at it harder than less successful ones or that their understanding of the craft of fiction is any more accurate,” Bourne writes. “What successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent.

“This inconvenient fact offends our sensibilities because it is elitist and because it means that for all but a very lucky few of us, literary greatness remains beyond our grasp.”

Here’s the full article.

Screen Shot 2014-11-15 at 11.42.33 AMIf you’re a reader you already know about goodreads.com, which helps readers keep track of books they want to read and provides a forum for readers to comment on books.

And the reader responses to Rabbit, Run are almost as fascinating to read as the novel itself.

“God, do I hate Rabbit Angstrom!” one reader wrote in 2009. “How much do I hate him? If I was in a room with Hannibal Lector, the Judge from Blood Meridian, the Joker from Batman, and Rabbit Angstrom, and someone handed me a gun with only 3 bullets, I’d shoot Rabbit three times.”

“I hate John Updike right now,” a female reader wrote earlier this year. “I hate him as an idealistic dreamer, for making me remember how ugly we are—all of us humans with our selfish hearts and boring thoughts, our fractious flaws, and our suffocating sense of doom and exceptionalism. I hate him as a woman, for cringe-worthy moments of misogyny, for the distancing male sexual fixation, and for making me wonder that even the kindly back massage my husband gave me last night was really just a covert attempt at foreplay. I hate him as a writer, for his beautiful way with details, drawing me in against my will with his quiet and clever descriptions. I hate John Updike because I don’t want to care about Rabbit Angstrom. I’d like to tell this dickhead Rabbit to go jump off the top of Mount Judge and leave me in peace—and yet here I am searching my local bookstore for the next installment.”

Ambivalence was a common theme, though there were both straight detractors and fans as well. But it’s interesting to see how people are responding to a book some 60 years after it was written.

Conferences are fun reunions, but they also inspire people to attempt new projects. Shortly after the Third Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pa. this past October, John McTavish thought it would be a great idea to do a round-up of members who would share their first exposures to Updike and important discoveries, as well as any recommendations they would have for would-be readers of Updike. Below are the fruits of his labor:

John Updike Readers Share Discoveries and Recommendations

“Only a very tiny list of writers comes to mind when you think of the finest American novelists,” Dick Cavett once noted, “and John Updike is certainly upon that very short list.” The British novelist Ian McEwan went even further recently claiming that “Updike at his best is… a great observer. He never ceases to surprise and delight me. I love the intelligence of the sentences with that odd little hard-to-define spring… an extra beat that quickens my pulse. Who else does that? Shakespeare, Milton and many, many other poets. Bellow does. Calvino. There’s no end of them, really. But never so copiously as Updike. One can read him at random and find some felicity on the page.”

This is high praise indeed from some pretty reputable sources. But the fact that Updike wrote over sixty books (compared with, let’s say, four for Salinger and nine for F. Scott Fitzgerald), makes it hard to say which is his best book or short story. Hence the variety of testimonies and recommendations here from a variety of readers all of whom have no hesitation in saying how much we appreciate that “odd little hard-to-define spring” in John Updike’s sentences.

First Exposures

We begin with DON GREINER, the dean of Updike criticism, who discovered the writings of John Updike while he was a student at the University of Virginia: “Because those were the days after the deaths of Hemingway and Faulkner, Frost and Eliot, etc. we used to gather in a pub after leaving the library around 10 pm to drink a few beers and to argue about which current American writer would take the place of the recently deceased American modernists. Bellow was mentioned a great deal, but most of us put our money on Salinger. We did not know, of course, that Salinger had vowed not to publish again, a vow that he kept. But one of our group of beer-drinking ‘intellectuals’ insisted that I read his copy of Pigeon Feathers and then decide. I have been reading Updike ever since.”

It was one of those stories collected in Pigeon Feathers that first turned JAMES PLATH onto Updike: “Like so many, my first exposure to Updike came in high school, when I encountered a short story vaguely reminiscent of J. D. Salinger’s that began, ‘In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.’ With that first sentence, Updike grabbed the attention of every pubescent boy in every high school in America – even the back-row jocks who leaned in their chairs against the wall. ‘A & P’ appeared in the Points of View anthology, and it was easily one of the most accessible yet resonant stories we read in Honor’s English. ‘You know,’ the 19-year-old narrator says, ‘it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet padding along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.’

“Apart from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, I couldn’t recall reading any literature with a capital ‘L’ where even a word like ‘naked’ or ‘bra’ appeared, much less a description of ‘the two smoothest scoops of vanilla’ inside it. Like the more graphic sexual descriptions which would follow in Couples, the Rabbit novels, and countless others, the metaphor seemed so startlingly right. But I also thought Updike perfectly captured the disconnect, the unrequited love between high school boys and girls that, at this stage in their lives, might as well have been Greek goddesses, for all their inaccessibility. Other Updike passages from other novels and short stories resonate, but you never forget the very first time that a writer speaks not just to you, but for you.”

JACK De BELLIS stumbled upon Updike in 1962 while teaching a freshman comp/lit course at UCLA and searching for a book that would show the world of Holden Caulfield as a grown-up, a person who couldn’t be saved from adulthood by the catcher in the rye:          “I thought Rabbit, Run was perfect, and it was. Later I did a 45-minute radio review of the book; much later I published two articles: ‘Oedipal Angstrom’ and ‘Names in the Rabbit Trilogy,’ and of course went on to teach the book many times.”

BILJANA DOJCINOVIC was 15 or 16 years old when she went to the municipal library in Belgrade to borrow the recently translated novel everybody was talking about — Couples. But the librarian thought that she was too young for such a book, and refused to hand it to her, saying that Couples was a sociological study:

“Instead, she gave me Rabbit, Run…. The recognition of closeness came in the scene when Rabbit comes back home and finds Janice, pregnant and alcoholic in their messy apartment. Before he goes out again to fetch Nelson from his mother, Janice calls from the kitchen, ‘And honey, pick up a pack of cigarettes, could you?’ Her voice awakens in Harry a strange sensation: ‘Rabbit freezes, standing looking at his faint yellow shadow on the white door that leads to the hall, and senses he is in a trap. It seems certain. He goes out.’

“It was this image of the character in the trap, between the door leading back to the hall/hell and the one which was seemingly the exit, that made the deepest impression on me. Anti-hero Angstrom, obviously marked by existential Angst, facing the classic either/or of going with the family, problems and all, or moving outside and risking the loneliness and cold — spoke to my not-quite-conscious youthful dilemmas.”

“Seems to me, WILLIAM PRITCHARD recalls, “that one of the first, perhaps the first time I became really aware of Updike’s presence as a writer was at the end of ‘The Happiest I’ve Been,’ the final story in The Same Door. John Nordholm and his friend are driving to Chicago, and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike John’s friend Neil let him take the wheel while he sleeps. The following great sentence raised my consciousness:

There was the quality of the 10 a.m. sunshine as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility – you felt you could slice forever through such a good pure element – and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespread pride: Pennsylvania, your state – as if you had made your life.

“I found attractive earlier parts of the story, a post-high school gathering of John and his friends, but it was the ending that took off, and I felt as exhilarated as our hero.”    Read the rest of this entry »

Stanley Plumly, a poet and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland who also writes about literary romanticism, ventured out of his subject matter to talk about 19th- and 20th-century fiction writers and “The Art of the Sentence.”

“Words, as means and matter, were my first take on the art of writing—the obvious fact that writing is first and last words, and that, as Coleridge says, good writing is the best words in their best order,” Plumly writes.

“I’m talking about the art of the sentence, especially the modern sentence as practiced by Henry James, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, James Agee, and Saul Bellow, in which writing becomes the language of the experience. I’m not talking about a writer such as John Updike, who, too often—notably in his fiction—writes exclusively in the experience of the language.”

The brief article appeared under the banner “Writing Lessons” and was posted November 10, 2014 on The American Scholar website.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 6.23.42 AMAmazon.com jumped on the best books bandwagon with a list of the Top 100 books of 2014, and Adam Begley’s bio, Updike, measured up pretty well at #11:

Updike is Adam Begley’s masterful, much-anticipated biography of one of the most celebrated figures in American literature: Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Updike—a candid, intimate, and richly detailed look at his life and work.

In this magisterial biography, Adam Begley offers an illuminating portrait of John Updike, the acclaimed novelist, poet, short-story writer, and critic who saw himself as a literary spy in small-town and suburban America, who dedicated himself to the task of transcribing “middleness with all its grits, bumps and anonymities.”

Updike explores the stages of the writer’s pilgrim’s progress: his beloved home turf of Berks County, Pennsylvania; his escape to Harvard; his brief, busy working life as the golden boy at The New Yorker; his family years in suburban Ipswich, Massachusetts; his extensive travel abroad; and his retreat to another Massachusetts town, Beverly Farms, where he remained until his death in 2009. Drawing from in-depth research as well as interviews with the writer’s colleagues, friends, and family, Begley explores how Updike’s fiction was shaped by his tumultuous personal life—including his enduring religious faith, his two marriages, and his first-hand experience of the “adulterous society” he was credited with exposing in the bestselling Couples.

With a sharp critical sensibility that lends depth and originality to his analysis, Begley probes Updike’s best-loved works—from Pigeon Feathers to The Witches of Eastwick to the Rabbit tetralogy—and reveals a surprising and deeply complex character fraught with contradictions: a kind man with a vicious wit, a gregarious charmer who was ruthlessly competitive, a private person compelled to spill his secrets on the printed page. Updike offers an admiring yet balanced look at this national treasure, a master whose writing continues to resonate like no one else’s.

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 1.49.21 PMMove over, David Levine. There’s another caricaturist working the literary crowd. Illustrator Ward O’Neill has posted a caricature of John Updike on his website. Updike’s is among 67 drawings in the category of writing and ideas, wedged between Günter Grass and Adam Smith.

You can see the full caricature here.

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