In a recent cultural criticism and analysis essay in The Nation on “Where the Air Stands Still; In India, the pathology of denial about climate change reveals the real crisis at our door—one of imagination,” Abhrajyoti Chakraborty talks about the negative effects that colonialization and globalization have had on India and concludes that, given the “imperative to industrialize” and the effects that had on rural life and the country’s natural resources, “[i]t is hard not to view global warming as the outcome of modernization’s very success.”

Chakraborty discusses Meera Subramanian’s research methods and book, A River Runs Again, and also novelist Amitav Ghosh‘s “recent polemic,” The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the conclusion of which is that “the project of modernity has expelled the idea of ‘the collective’ from our imagination over the last 150 years. It did so by making obsolete the many older communal forms of storytelling—like fables, legends, and myths—and by implying that most of the events they described were unlikely to happen.

“‘The Flaubertian novel came into fashion as a result of this shift, and, something similar,’ Ghosh argues, also occurred in the field of geology. Both disciplines have become emblematic of a worldview that perceives only slow, foreseeable change and misses completely the possibility of ‘short-lived cataclysmic events’. . . .

“Much of this is inferred from a review by John Updike for The New Yorker back in 1988, in which a sense of ‘individual moral adventure’ is said to distinguish novels from fables and chronicles. Literature—comprising primarily of ‘serious fiction’ in Ghosh’s reckoning: novels that are reviewed in ‘highly regarded literary journals’—cannot persuasively imagine the unforeseeable consequences of a warmer world. This is also how, as in Subramanian’s book, personalities become more important than policies. Journalistic scrutiny can always be redirected to something private. Politics has become the sort of novel Updike might have liked: broad in principle, but relentlessly individual in practice.”

Later Chakraborty writes, “The absence of novels about climate change is a constant refrain in The Great Derangement. Identifying the absence is only part of the problem: One should also consider what such a novel might look like. It is instructive that in Updike’s characterization of the novel as an ‘individual moral adventure,’ Ghosh takes issue with the adjectives. He seems to share with Updike the confining sense that the novel is, when all is said and done, a story, an ‘adventure.’ Ways of telling are not as important as the tale: A novel is distinguished by its aboutness. There is little room for doubt or prevarication in such a novel—little room, as it were, for imagination.”

Read the full essay.

The John Updike Society invited Garrison Keillor to be the keynote speaker at the Fourth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Columbia, South Carolina last October because of his love of John Updike. So there won’t be much suspense for Updike fans when Martha’s Vineyard Times interviewer Connie Berry asks Keillor, “Whom do you like to read these days?”

“I am still reading John Updike,” says Keillor. “It will take me about five more years to finish with him. And then I’ll turn to Faulkner and Turgenev and go back and reread War and Peace, and then if I’m still alive I’ll take another run at Moby-Dick.”

Read the full interview:  “Minnesota invades Martha’s Vineyard”

On WNYC guest host Sonia Manzano presented three works about “entering uncharted territories.”

“An early John Updike fable, ‘The Different One,’ imagines a bold bunny. It’s read by Michael Emerson. A gentrified town morphs into a dreamscape in Steven Millhauser’s ‘Coming Soon,’ read by David Morse. And Kristin Valdez Quade’s essay ‘Youth from Every Quarter’ looks at the harsher side of assimilation. It’s read by Manzano.”

Recorded live at Symphony Space in New York City.


Dana Spiotta, an associate professor in the MFA program in creative writing at Syracuse, has been named recipient of the John Updike Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Other writers honored in 2017 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters are Joan Acocella, Ayad Akhtar, Chris Bachelder, Paul Beatty, Judy Blume, Kathleen Graber, Jennifer Haigh, Lee Clay Johnson, August Kleinzahler, Elizabeth Kolbert, Robert Macfarlane, Karan Mahajan, Jamaal May, Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage, Richard Sieburth, Safiya Sinclair, and Luis Alberto Urrea. ( “Judy Blume among authors given prizes by arts academy.”)

The American Academy of Arts and Letters is chartered by Congress, established in 1898 to “foster, assist, and sustain an interest in literature, music, and the fine arts.” Among the founding members were Republican Teddy Roosevelt and Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

The John Updike Award in Literature ($20,000) is given every two years to a mid-career writer whose “work has demonstrated consistent excellence.”

Spiotta’s first novel, Lightning Field (Scribner, 2001), was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her second novel, Eat the Document (Scribner, 2006), won the Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and was a National Book Award finalist. Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2011) was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her most recent novel is Innocents and Others (Scribner, 2016).

“In ‘Innocents and Others’ Dana Spiotta explores the creative tensions between two female filmmakers” (L.A. Times)

“Dana Spiotta: ‘I always think the novelist should go to the culture’s dark places and poke around'” (Believer Magazine)

Ed Phillips, a polyolefin specialist by profession and the most recent member to join The John Updike Society, says he reread John Updike’s Toward the End of Time and “realized how more timely it is today compared to when it was released in 1997.”

At least in America, Phillps writes, “1997 was a relatively calm year” that was “way pre-9/11. Nobody had heard of al Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden except the CIA. NEOCONS biding their time. Arguably the biggest story of 1997 was the death of Princess Diana . . . .

“Updike was 66 at the time, writing about 66-year-old Ben Turnbull, a comfortably retired wealth management manager living with his second wife in a seaside manse outside of Boston in the year 2020,” and Phillips, now 66 himself, decided it would be a good time to reread the novel . . . .

“It’s been 20 years, but I don’t recall it as one of Updike’s more memorable books. Normally for me his writing often blurs the line between extremely fine prose and poetry. I love gliding through his 150-word descriptive sentences. But the critics were not too fond of it either. One predicted that he had run out of juice. Thank goodness that wasn’t true. Maybe he was just intellectually exhausted from writing In the Beauty of the Lilies, perhaps his best work, just the year before. But Toward the End of Time was dark. An ineffectual Congress led by an incompetent President Smith had gotten the United States into a failed nuclear war with China. What a preposterous storyline! Vast areas have been seriously ‘de-populated.’ Our infrastructure and economy are badly damaged, travel between coasts is impossible, the dollar has been replaced with local emergency currency, script that is used to pay off entrepreneurs for basic services and security.

“Updike paints Turnbull as a man far past 66. I can say this being 66. Admittedly, though there are days when I feel much older. . . .

“No one can ‘observe’ like Updike. Read Just Looking (1989) or Still Looking (2005), Updike’s essays on art. They are works of art in themselves. But in Toward the End of Time, through Turnbull he describes every leaf and every petal and pistol and stamen in his wife’s gardens as they evolve and change texture and color and decay and smell over the course of four seasons. Almost as fillers, Updike throws in some golf talk and religious history and a few Vonnegutiann sci-fi elements.

“But Turnbull (Updike?) is also obsessed with sex, the act, in uncomfortable and incredibly graphic detail, fluids and all and has or recalls a lot of it throughout the book until of course he, Trumbull, being 66, becomes impotent and incontinent (again with the fluids) as a result of prostate surgery.

“Twenty years after its release, we are living in darker and certainly more uncertain times and the storyline doesn’t seem so preposterous now, and neither does the mood. Updike couldn’t possibly have foreseen the first 100 days of the Trump administration. But Toward the End of Time is far timelier now and should be given a second read. When Kellyanne Conway spoke the term “Alternative Facts” in a CNN interview, sales of Orwell’s 1984 shot up to #3 on the best seller list, with sales increasing by 10,000 percent. I think Toward the End of Time is far more relevant.

In 1963, a 16 year old was tired of hearing about symbolism from his English teacher, wondering, as many students still do, if teachers read too much into a literary work. So he mailed a four-question survey to 150 novelists asking them about symbolism in their work. Exactly half of them responded, among them John Updike. Had young Bruce McAllister sent that survey just three years earlier, he could have included Ernest Hemingway, who famously once remarked, “All symbolism is shit.”

Specifically, McAllister wanted their opinion of symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, which his class was reading, but some of the responses were more general . . . and eye-opening.

MacKinlay Kantor (Andersonville, Gettysburg) was the most blunt:  “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.

Jack Kerouac offered the briefest response to the question of placing symbolism in his work. “No,” Kerouac wrote back.

“Consciously?” Isaac Asimov responded. “Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Normal Mailer defined the best symbols as “those you become aware of only after you finish the work,” while Ralph Ellison seemed more reflective and representative of the writer’s method:  “Symbolism arises out of action. . . . Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art.”

John Updike, meanwhile, spoke along the lines of writer-as-mystic, answering “Yes” to the question of whether he consciously, intentionally places symbolism in his writing, adding, “I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

To the question of whether readers ever infer what is not intended, Updike responded, “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

Asked if he feels the great writers of classics consciously put symbols in their works, Updike wrote, “Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”

As for the last question, whether he has anything to add that’s pertinent to a study of symbols, Updike sounded like Kantor:  “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Read the full Mental Floss article.

Already in Serbia there is excitement and anticipation of the upcoming Fifth Biennial (International?) John Updike Society Conference in Belgrade, scheduled for June 1-June 5, 2018 and hosted by the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade. Conference director Biljana Dojčinović reports that a doctoral student of hers “who is also a very devoted member of the organizational committee of our future conference, Nemanja Gllintić, has made an interesting teaching experiment.

“As he is a primary school teacher of language and literature, he lectured at two of his final grade classes (15-year-old children) the story ‘Friends in Philadelphia.’ The reception of the story by the pupils has been fantastic. Everybody read it (it had been translated into Serbian in 1966), did their research, and understood everything about the narrative techniques as well as the documentary elements.

“The teaching staff colleagues that Nemanja invited to be at these lectures where stunned by the pupils’ performance and all the enthusiasm that permeated these lectures. Also amazed were some of the parents I spoke later to—their children made them read the story in order to discuss it with them!

“Nemanje is now writing the report, and there will be a written and video poll among the pupils, which will be translated into English. Right now, the pupils are busy with their homework, which is to write a sequel to the story.”

Call for Papers and Other Fifth International JUS Conference posts

John Updike wasn’t only one of America’s greatest writers; he was also among the most prolific, averaging a book a year during his long career. So it’s more than a little surprising to see his name turn up on a list of “Authors who have made us wait for their books,” which was recently published in the Life & Style section of The Times of India.

But the concept is this:  the gap between an original book and a sequel.

“Author John Updike took a gap of 24 years between his books The Witches of Eastwick (1984) and The Widows of Eastwick. Updike revisited the witches more than two decades later to wrap their story up before he died less than a year later in 2009. He explained why he wrote the sequel: ‘Taking those women into old age would be a way of writing about old age, my old age.'” (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

Visitors to Chicago may not be able to walk through the George Lucas museum—Friends of the Park shot that project down—but a new American Writers Museum near the Art Institute recently opened, and it includes, not surprisingly, John Updike.

The emphasis is on the published word rather than artifacts, so it’s an interactive museum of ideas. As a Chicago Tribune editorial recently pointed out, “This playful, thought-provoking museum encompasses the entire scope of American letters, from important novels, poetry and nonfiction books to potboilers, children’s literature and, yes, even journalism.

“If you’ve ever had a favorite book (or wanted one), your interests will be piqued. You’ll find everything from Vladimir Nabokov’s shocking Lolita to Robert McCloskey’s endearing Make Way for Ducklings. Not to mention Richard Wright, Sylvia Plath, Willa Cather and Henry Miller, among others. . . .

“American writing, protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, tells the ongoing story of our turbulent nation with unfettered creativity and zeal. That’s the big idea this museum hurls at visitors through interactive exhibits, quotes, lists and the like.

“The museum, which opens Tuesday, is the brainchild of Malcolm O’Hagan, a retired manufacturing executive from Maryland who saw a museum of Irish writers in Dublin and thought America needed a similar one. He organized a board that has raised nearly $10 million in private funding. It’s located in a compact space on the second floor of 180 N. Michigan Ave. but packs a big punch of intellectual energy. John Updike, Octavia Butler and the Federal Writers’ Project (which employed Saul Bellow and Nelson Algren in Chicago) get mentions, among scores more. . . .

“The museum’s setup is modern, thankfully, with lots of video screens and quick capsules of information, as if to cater to the depleted attention spans of young people while subversively wooing them to read nice long books.”

Read the full editorial:  “Lots of reading and thinking at the American Writers Museum”

American Writers Museum website

Data is everywhere these days, but Ben Blatt offers a wonderfully refreshing apolitical crunching of numbers in a Slate article that asks the question, “Do Semicolons Make You Pretentious?”

His conclusion?

“While semicolons are more present in the Pulitzer winners on the whole, it’s not a necessary condition to have them to appeal to literary circles. Some writers, like Larry McMurtry, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove had almost 650 semicolons per 100,000 words, choose to use them often; others, like Cormac McCarthy, who won a Pulitzer for The Road without using a single semicolon, choose to follow [Kurt] Vonnegut’s advice and avoid them.”

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