Lorrie Moore to deliver keynote at 2020 John Updike Conference

Writer Lorrie Moore will travel to Shillington-Reading to deliver the keynote talk at the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University. The conference will take place the first week in October 2020, which coincides with the October 3 grand opening and dedication of The John Updike Childhood Home.

Like Updike, Moore received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story, given annually to a living American writer who has made significant contributions to the genre. And like Updike, Moore won the O. Henry Award for a short story that was first published in The New Yorker. Updike and Moore were both admirers of each other’s work, and both authors worked in multiple genres—novels, short stories, non-fiction, children’s books, essays, and criticism.

“Her review of The Early Stories is one of my favorite takes on Updike,” JUS board member Matthew Shipe said. That review was reprinted in Moore’s collection of essays and reviews, See What Can Be Done (Knopf, 2018). Over the years Moore has published five collections of short stories (Self-Help, 1985; Like Life, 1990; Birds of America, 1998; The Collected Stories, 2008; and Bark, 2014) as well as three novels (Anagrams, 1986; Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, 1994; and A Gate at the Stairs, 2009); a children’s book (The Forgotten Helper, 1987), and that aforementioned collection of essays.

Birds of America won The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and brought her wide acclaim, with Alison Lurie remarking that Moore is “the nearest thing we have to Checkhov.” If that sounds heady, readers who want to explore the finer points of Moore’s work need look no further than Understanding Lorrie Moore, published in the respected major author series by the University of South Carolina Press and written by Alison Kelly, who notes, “Moore’s adroit pen portraits of places and people reflect her overarching artistic purpose, which she has described as ‘trying to register the way we, here in America, live.’ . . . Moore anatomizes American society as revealingly in her way as do writers such as John Updike or Tom Wolfe . . . .”

Updike had included Moore’s New Yorker story “You’re Ugly, Too” in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which he edited. Moore is currently the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

More information about the conference and conference registration will be forthcoming.

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Baby Boomer Report Card references Updike

In his op-ed piece published in the Friday, August 9, 2019 New York Times (A23), David Brooks grades the Baby Boomer generation on Politics (C-), Social Movements (A), Pop Culture (A), High Culture (C-), Technology and Innovation (A-), Lifestyle (A), Manners and Morals (C), and Overall Grade (B).

In giving boomers a C- for High Culture, Brooks writes, “The boomers entered college just as universities were expanding and becoming more specialized and professionalized. This produced the most educated generation up to that time, but the specialization and ghettoization of intellectual and artistic life took its toll on the nation’s culture.

“It’s not that people aren’t producing good work, but its influence tends to be confined to the academy or specialized subcultures. Art, classical music and novels have lost cultural influence. Boomer writers do not play the same roles as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Larkin, John Updike, and Toni Morrison. Many of the most influential living philosophers are pre-boomer—like Amartya Sen, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.”

Brooks concludes, “As a generation, boomers have excelled at the material things that make life pleasant, convenient, long and fun. They have struggled in the realms that other civilizations would have considered more profound: governance, philosophy, art and public morality.”

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Golfer’s Journal features a personal consideration of Updike and golf

A subscription is required, but if you’re high on golf and John Updike, as Matt Chominski is, you can plunk down the cash and read Chominski’s personal essay “Peculiar Bliss: Navigating family, marriage and golf with John Updike” that appears in the print-only Golfer’s Journal No. 9. Also in the issue is “The Bard’s Butter Cut: A Meeting and a match with Billy Collins, America’s rock-star poet.”

Of his Updike essay, Chominski wrote The John Updike Society in an email, “I actually start the piece referencing a lost Dante and his guide Virgil, and then place myself in the role of the pilgrim with Updike as my guide. The essay then dips in and out of his work from Golf Dreams, following the tripartite structure of the Divine Comedy. As the essay ends with the joys of a golfing life, it is fittingly titled ‘Peculiar Bliss,’ a phrase taken from Updike.”

Here’s the link to subscribe or purchase the current issue.

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Announcing a Call for Papers for the 6th John Updike Society Conference

The John Updike Society is now accepting proposals for papers to be presented at the Sixth Biennial John Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University, Reading, Pennsylvania, in fall 2020. The conference will coincide with the October 3 grand opening and October 3 dedication of the newly restored John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pennsylvania, which the Society purchased in 2012 and has turned into a museum. Attendees will also be able to register for group side trips to Updike sites in Berks County and/or a day trip to Philadelphia.

We welcome one-page proposals for 15-20 minute papers on all aspects of Updike’s life and work, but especially seek proposals on:

—Works dealing with Updike’s childhood as described in his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including Midpoint, Pigeon Feathers, Self-Consciousness, The Centaur, and Olinger Stories.

—Updike works celebrating a milestone anniversary in 2020: Rabbit, Run (60th), Bech: A Book (50th), Rabbit at Rest (30th), and Gertrude and Claudius (20th).

Toward the End of Time, since 2020 is the year in which the novel is set.

We will also entertain proposals for panel discussions focused on individual works, groups of works, or themes in Updike’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Scholars who have recently published a book or are in the process of writing a book on Updike are encouraged to submit proposals for panel discussions.

Send proposal and a brief one- or two-paragraph bio to:  Program director Larry Mazzeno: larry.mazzeno@alvernia.edu.

Successful proposals will be acknowledged within two weeks of receipt. To present a paper or moderate a panel at the conference, participants must be members of The John Updike Society and register for the conference. For membership information, see the Society’s website at http://blogs.iwu.edu/johnupdikesociety/join. Those who have papers accepted can join when they register for the conference. Registration information and further conference information will be forthcoming.

The very first John Updike Society conference was hosted by Alvernia University in 2010 (Ann Beattie, Lincoln Perry keynotes), with the second conference held at Suffolk University in Boston (Joyce Carol Oates, keynote), the third at Alvernia again (Adam Begley, Chip Kidd keynotes), the fourth at the University of South Carolina (Garrison Keillor keynote), and the fifth at the University of Belgrade in Serbia (Ian McEwan keynote). All are welcome to attend, whether presenting papers or not, as the John Updike Society is a gregarious blend of scholars, teachers, aficionados, Updike family and friends, and the kind of “just plain readers” that Updike so appreciated.


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Updike’s booksigning generosity recalled

Writer-artist-blogger Tim Lemire just published “Yours, John Updike,” a fun piece about signed books, recalling a time in high school when he visited a friend’s house and saw shelf-upon-shelf of books written by John Updike—all of them signed, though his friend’s father wasn’t a professor, a book reviewer, or a fellow novelist. He was an Updike lover . . . and collector.

Lemire tells how that friend’s father and another man showed up at a Harvard event with two duffel bags full of books they wanted Updike to sign.

“I get in line. Updike signs my books; I think him. Turning, I see that Sidney and Charlie have positioned themselves to be the very last in line. . . . Later that night, at home, I get a call from Sidney, who announces with a victor’s pride: ‘He signed them all.’

“Sidney describes the scene: While Mrs. Updike looks on with glowering impatience, John Updike sits in astonishment as one book of his after another is produced like an endless string of colored handkerchiefs from a top hat. As Sidney tells it, Updike delights in re-encountering foreign editions of his books or one-off publications that he had totally forgotten about.

“The story does not end there. The following year, Updike releases yet another book of short stories, and to promote it, he will be reading at the Borders bookstore in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. The newspaper ad for the event reads: ‘One signed book per person. No exceptions.'”

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In Memoriam: Derek Parker Royal

With sadness we report that Derek Parker Royal, who founded the Philip Roth Society in 2002 and also volunteered to serve on the first board of directors for The John Updike Society when it began in 2009, died on July 11, 2019 at the age of 55 as a result of coronary disease.

As current Philip Roth Society president Matthew Shipe wrote in his July 15, 2019 announcement, Derek, who also served as the first executive editor of the journal Philip Roth Studies, was “a kind, energetic, and generous scholar, who brought in many younger scholars into Roth Studies. Derek was a deeply astute critic and writer, and his intelligence and enthusiasm for not only Roth but also comics, music, and films will be deeply missed. He is survived by his wife Amanda and his two children”—who have our deepest sympathies.

Although Derek was too over-committed to remain on the Updike Society board for long, we appreciated his service, his willingness to share things he learned from founding a single author society, and his genial “let’s do this” attitude.

The Philip Roth Society also posted a “Tribute to Derek Parker Royal” that was written by Robert Paul Lamb, who taught Derek in graduate school.

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Updike among novelists quizzed on writing habits

Way back in 2012, Mental Floss published a piece by Lucas Reilly titled “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional.”  It’s a fun read, because Reilly gets his material from a 16-year-old boy’s query.

“It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded.” Reilly includes 12 of them: Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Richard Hughes, MacKinlay Kantor, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand, and John Updike.

In answer to the question “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?…If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?” Updike responds, “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

If that seems testy, consider Kantor’s dismissal of the student’s questionnaire: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”

Asked if readers “ever infer that there is symbolism” in his writing where he “had not intended it to be,” Updike responds, “Once in a while—usually they do not [see the] symbols that are there.”

“Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing?… Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?” Updike’s response: “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.”

By the time he got around to answering the fourth question, Updike seemed to feel as Kantor did. Asked if he had “anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study” Updike responded, “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Reilly’s story was a condensation of “Document: The Symbolism Survey,” written by Sarah Funke Butler and published Dec. 5, 2011 in The Paris Review.

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Writer describes living in Updike country

Writing for Literary Hub, Thomas E. Ricks shared what it was like “Growing Up Inside a John Updike Novel” in the “Shadows at the Edge of Updike’s Work.”

Ricks said his first word—”boat”—was spoken “about the time that John Updike was moving into a small house a few miles to the north of Essex.”  But, “It was only recently, when reading Adam Begley’s biography of Updike, that I realized how much Updike and I breathed the same disconcerted air in those years. . . . Updike’s beaches were my beaches—Crane and Wingaersheek, both located between Gloucester’s rocks and Ipswich’s marshes. As newlyweds, Updike and his first wife had worked at the YMCA Family Camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, while my family around that time spent a week of the summer at Squam Lake, the next body of water to the west.”

“When old and wealthy, Updike spent some of his royalty payments golfing at the venerable Myopia Hunt Club, where my grandparents sometimes took me to dinner when I was a child,” Ricks writes. And getting even more into the territory of family myth he says, “My mother told me that once at a cocktail party, Updike poured a drink down the front of her dress. She was not sure if it had been on purpose.”

The writer considers how “At one point in Couples, one half of an adulterous couple contemplating having sex on a pile of dirty clothes in a basement laundry room in a house on the outskirts of Ipswich looks up at the cellar window to check if a ‘child’s watching shadow cleft it.’ I would have been seven years and eight years old in the year in which the novel is set, from early 1963 to early 1964. That might have been my shadow there,” he muses.

Read the full essay.

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Reading Eagle bankruptcy story cites Updike

When an important community business and local institution announces its filing for bankruptcy protection, you’d think that would be news enough. But when the Reading Eagle did so in March, The Philadelphia Inquirer headline read, “The Pennsylvania newspaper where novelist John Updike interned files for bankruptcy.”

“The Reading Eagle, partly owned by two of the richest families in America, filed for bankruptcy protection Wednesday afternoon as the local-news industry continues to be battered,” reporter Bob Fernandez wrote.

“The Eagle was founded by Jesse G. Hawley and William S. Ritter in 1868 and has been owned by Hawley’s descendants since then. In the 1950s, author John Updike worked several summers as a copyboy at the Eagle and also wrote several feature articles.”

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Blogger picks Rabbit, Run for his pseudo bookclub

You’ve got to love a blog that’s titled Coming Up Millhouse, especially when the “about” section begins with a Homer J. Simpson quote:  “Maybe, just once, someone will call me ‘sir’ without adding, ‘you’re making a scene’.” And especially when the blogger posts an entry on “Reading The Classics – ‘Rabbit, Run’.”

“In 2019, myself and a friend sat down to form a pseudo bookclub,” Derrhn writes. “Our goal: to read the classics we are yet to get round to. We started with John Updike’s debut novel, Rabbit, Run.”

“I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book,” Derrhn says. “If you’ve ever read Catcher in the Rye or On the Road and felt frustrated about how the respective protagonists’ abandonment of responsibility goes unpunished, then Rabbit, Run is the book for you. Updike explicitly explores the disaster left behind when someone chooses to run away. Rabbit’s futile attempts to fill the vague sense of something missing leads to: death; loneliness; a loss of religion; and sexual impotence. In many ways the book reads as a direct confrontation of the hypocrisy inherent in the burgeoning hippie counter-culture of 1960s America.

“The pleasure of reading Rabbit, Run stems from the paradox at its heart. Harry is both ‘running’ to find something, anything that might make him feel complete whilst simultaneously running away from a truth that scares him—that his life peaked in high school.”

Well Sir, that assessment seems spot-on to us.


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