Son of a Dentist! An old interview with John Updike surfaces

John Updike famously hated giving interviews, but when his Ipswich dentist had his drill in his mouth and asked, “My son would like to interview you for his school paper. Would that be okay?” it’s tough to say no. Impossible, even.

Bob Waite, whose interview—“Column: Updike interview proved drill mightier than the sword (or pen)”—appeared in yesterday’s Ipswich News—recalled that 1965 interview and shared Q&A excerpts he found in a box. Among the questions:

What do you consider your major work up to this time?  That is a very difficult question. Of the four novels I have written, each was the best I could do at the time. If I had to pick one it would probably be The Centaur. Of my short stories, my next book, Olinger which will come out next year, is my best.

I have read some of your books and have noticed a lack of endings. Do you have a special reason for using this style?  I do not believe in artificial endings. A conventional ending doesn’t fit real life. (But) all of my books are written towards an ending I have in mind. I don’t just chop the end off when I get tired.

Do you find you often unknowingly use actual persons and occurrences in your writing?  No. If I do it, I do it knowingly. In general, I try not to translate real things into fiction. But I find it almost unavoidable to refrain from mixing fact with fiction.

A few unkind things were said about your last book, Of the Farm. What is your general opinion of critics?  I don’t have a general opinion of critics. It all depends on the critic. Being a critic is a very difficult thing to do well. I think there’s a lot of propaganda going on about books. If a book cannot defend itself, then it cannot be defended.

Do you have any favorite authors or persons who have influenced your writing?  Many, beginning with my parents and my wife. As for authors, I would have to say James Thurber, Henry Green, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway all influenced me.

Read the whole interview.


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Times writer argues on behalf of great male literary figures

In a piece that appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Times [London], Claire Lowdon asked the question, “Should we stop reading the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth?”

Then she provided an answer: “Let’s judge the great male literary figures on merit, not by their sexual deeds.” But she did not come to that decision without a struggle.

“Never do I feel more trapped inside my gender than when I’m thinking about Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow. But not for the reasons you might think,” Lowdon wrote.

“These novelists dominated the American literary scene for 50 years. Boldly, shamelessly, their work mined their lives and those of the people they knew. Over the past decade important biographies of all three have appeared, flooding those lives with the cold, hard light of non-fiction. The promiscuity and the adultery we already knew about. But the scale of it! Sometimes Bellow had four women on the go at once. Or how about Updike, who pleasured his mistress through her ski trousers in the back seat of the car his unwitting wife was driving? And Roth, whose later work seems so noble, so serious—why there he is, caught red-handed in Blake Bailey’s new biography, using prostitutes and sleeping with his students!”

Lowdon wrote that ironically “we perform a piece of sexist reduction when all we care about is what Roth [and Updike and the others] did in bed. And although, increasingly, it’s considered reactionary to say, ‘Hold on, things were a bit different back then,’ it’s true: they were. The way we think about sex and power has shifted radically in the past half-century.”

She continued, “Roth, Updike and Bellow are our fathers in the sense that we have inherited the world in which they lived and wrote. Perhaps we simply can’t bear to discover that these once-revered figures are less than perfect. An uncomfortable truth: a man who is capable of great insights into the human condition can desire in his dotage to f*** a much younger woman. Are we afraid of what these men have to tell us about sex—that it is full of inconvenient, transgressive, inappropriate feelings?”

Lowdon concluded, “The world is messy, full of unwanted erections and coercion and pornography. Good novelists try to capture that mess on paper. Which is in itself a moral act—to look clearly and unflinchingly at what is.”

Read the full essay.


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In Memoriam: James Yerkes

Three and a half years ago The John Updike Society lost contact with James Yerkes, well known to Updike scholars as the editor-publisher of The Centaurian newsletter. Now we are saddened to report that we have learned from Dave Lull, who served as Yerkes’ assistant for many years, that Yerkes passed away.

Lull managed to track down Yerkes’ daughter, Janet Winslow, who responded in an email, “I’m sorry to tell you that my father died in November 2018. My father fell and broke his pelvis on 10/31/17, and we moved him and my mother to assisted living in Indianapolis one month later. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he had a form of Parkinson’s that impacted both his physical and cognitive ability fairly quickly and significantly during his last year.”

For many years before the society was formed, The Centaurian served to unite academics and writers who were interested in the life, works, and legacy of John Updike. For his important and groundbreaking service to Updike studies, Yerkes was honored in 2010 as the first recipient of The John Updike Society’s Distinguished Service Award (pictured above). Due to his inability to travel, the award was presented to him on the society’s behalf by Rich Boulet, then director of the Blue Hill Public Library, a literary center in Maine near Yerkes’ home.

“I remember when Dad received this–he was so appreciative,” Winslow said. “My father’s Updike work was incredibly important and meaningful to him and provided a wonderful ‘place’ to put his energy and intellect in the years following retirement.”

Yerkes, Professor of Religion and Philosophy Emeritus and former provost of Moravian College, edited the important collection of essays on John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace, published by Eerdmans in December 1999. We will miss him.

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Maverick Philosopher on Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter

This time of year John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” is often reprinted and just as often pondered.

The most recent to tackle the poem is the Maverick Philosopher, who is listed among The Times of London’s 100 Best Blogs.

Bill Vallicella (aka Maverick Philosopher) writes, “Given what we know from yesterday’s Updike entry, the suspicion obtrudes that, while Updike clearly understands the Resurrection as orthodoxy understands it, his interest in it is merely aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s sense, and not ethical in the Dane’s sense, which suspicion comports well with the charge that Updike radically divorced Christian theology from Christian ethics.

“Or perhaps, as a Protestant, Updike thinks that since God in Christ did all the work of atonement, he needn’t do anything such as reform his life and struggle and strive for metanoia but can freely enjoy himself in the arms and partake of the charms of other men’s wives.  Am I being fair?”

Is he?

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Hear Updike Society member Yoav Fromer (author of The Moderate Imagination: The Political Though of John Updike and the Decline of New Deal Liberalism) in conversation with history professor Michael Kazin, whose most recent book was named an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times Book Review. The Zoom event is scheduled for April 18, 2021 from noon to 1:15, PST. To participate, register here.

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Updike was a kinder, gentler reviewer, even when he wasn’t

Yesterday, on John Updike’s 89th birthday, Literary Hub published an article by Walker Caplan that noted how Updike, “with one notable exception, was an incredibly kind reviewer.” Those familiar with Updike’s work are probably wondering which one that might be: his review of Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Tom Wolfe, or Toni Morrison? Okay, so there’s more than one. The fact remains, Updike was an incredibly generous reviewer who first and foremost refused to criticize a writer for not writing the kind of book that the reader or reviewer might have preferred. Updike was so devoted to the idea of writers reviewing writers that he set forth his now-famous list of rules for reviewing books.

Caplan includes a handful of criticisms that range from an “it could be me” response—”The elder Trellis [from Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds] is kept immobilized in his bed by surreptitiously drug-induced sleep while his characters, including a number of American cowboys recruited from the novels of one William Tracy, run wild. At least, that’s what I think is happening.”—to the blunt: “Ray Finch, the hero of Norman Rush’s lengthy new novel, Mortals, finds many things annoying. . . . Iris and Ray have been married for seventeen years, and she gives signs of having the seventeen-year itch. This is less surprising to the reader than to Ray, who is perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.”


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Little French Bridal Shop author recalls moment with Updike

In a Q&A with The Nerd Daily, Jennifer Dupee, author of the debut novel The Little French Bridal Shop, was asked, “Was there a moment in your writing career where you thought, ‘Okay, now I am officially a REAL writer?’ Can you tell us about that time in your life?”

Dupee responded, “I’m still not sure I feel like a REAL writer. It’s just something I’ve always done and will always continue to do. But I do have one small anecdote: My grandmother was friends with John Updike. When she died, we both spoke at her funeral. He came up to me afterward and praised my eulogy. In that moment, I felt a little like I’d arrived.”

Read the full interview.

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In Memoriam: Harlan L. Boyer

We are saddened to report that Harlan L. Boyer, who graduated from Shillington High School in 1950 and was a classmate of John Updike’s, died on Monday, March 1, 2021. He was 88. Boyer, whose father was Updike’s art teacher at Shillington High School, was the only male childhood friend invited to play inside the Updike house at 117 Philadelphia Ave. Boyer said that he and young Updike mostly played in the dining room just off the side porch, and that a favorite pastime was setting up dominoes on the sideboard and then knocking them down. When told about a handful of marbles that were found under a loose floorboard in the Black Room adjacent to Updike’s boyhood bedroom, Boyer said that they never really played much marbles. Rather, they would shoot them with their slingshots. Updike, he guessed, probably shot at something from his bedroom window, then panicked and hid the marbles.

Boyer had a wealth of stories to share, and members of The John Updike Society will fondly recall his participation on the classmates panel at the society’s first conference in Reading, Pa. In the years that followed he was generous with his time, always willing to answer scholars’ questions about his relationship with “Uppy,” as he called the author back when they were children.

According to the Reading Eagle obituary, Boyer served as a U.S. Navy pilot during the Korean Conflict and later earned a Master’s in Guidance and Counseling, serving 12 years in the Governor Mifflin School District and 23 years at Schuylkill Valley School District before retiring in 1992. A 32 Degree Mason, Boyer had a passion for airplanes and in his later years enjoyed tending to his two acres of property. The society offers our sympathies to his wife Beverly, son Kirk, and daughter Kirstin. We will miss him too.

Class of 1950 panel from the 2010 conference (l to r): Moderator Jack De Bellis, Joan Youngerman, Jackie Hirneisen Kendall, Harlan Boyer, Jimmie Trexler

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Roth letters reveal a complex relationship with Updike

In his May 21, 2020 article on “The Philip Roth Archive,” Jesse Tisch described  “A fan’s obsessive rummage through the letters and papers of the writer who died two years ago today” that “reveals a playful, funny, brilliant man.”  The letters also reveal a great deal about the complicated relationship  Roth had with fellow literary giant John Updike.

“Their relationship is hard to categorize, not a friendship, exactly, nor merely an acquaintance,” Tisch wrote. “For all their similarities—two literary grandees of the same generation, both precocious, prolific, obsessed with male desire and waning potency—they were strikingly different. Religious and secular. Serene and intense. High style and vernacular. Whereas Updike poured out novels, Roth, a plebeian laborer, assembled them brick by brick. To say that writing was pleasure for Updike and torture for Roth is to overstate things only slightly.

“The Roth-Updike letters reveal a deeper, more complex relationship than I had known about. Despite their differences, Roth admired Updike extravagantly, both as a novelist and a critic. “There’s no other writer (which is to say no one at all) in America whose high opinion means more to me than yours,” Roth wrote Updike in 1988. Roth pored over Updike’s reviews of his books, taking them to heart even when he didn’t agree: ‘take a look at page 181 of The Anatomy Lesson,’ he urged Updike in 1984. ‘My answer to the last paragraph of your review.’

“Somehow, despite their mutual respect and occasional get-togethers, the friendship never deepened. Roth’s half of the correspondence is warm and funny (another difference: Roth was far funnier), his fondness tinged with envy. ‘Reading you when I’m at work discourages me terribly—that fucking fluency!’ Roth wrote Updike in 1978. That wasn’t the only source of envy. ‘He knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America,’ Roth told David Plante. ‘I don’t know anything about anything.’ Indeed, one picks up on a subtle antagonism to Roth’s joshing. ‘Poor Rabbit. Must he die just because you’re tired?’ he needled Updike in 1990. More than once, Roth bristled at Updike’s criticism. He couldn’t understand Jewish novels; he had no comprehension of Jewish history or the Jewish psyche. ‘We are in history up to our knees,’ he told an interviewer, dismissing Updike’s review of The Anatomy Lesson.

“To some degree, both men were guarded and self-protective. Updike’s shield was amiability; Roth’s was humor and flattery. Of the two, Roth seemed more eager to pursue a deeper friendship. Roth professed ‘affectionate sympathy and something even more than that’ to Updike in 1991, yet sensed a certain resistance, a studied aloofness, on Updike’s part. Any chance for friendship was ruined by Updike’s incisive criticism of Roth’s novels. Reviewing The Anatomy Lesson, Updike complained of ‘the grinding, whining paragraphs’ and suggested that ‘by the age of fifty a writer should have settled his old scores.’ That rankled. In 1993, Updike delivered several sharp blows to Roth’s ego in the process of criticizing Operation Shylock (final verdict: Roth was ‘an exhausting author to be with’). The final blow came in 1999, when Updike, writing in The New York Review of Books, endorsed Claire Bloom’s vindictive memoir of her relationship with Roth. That did it: Roth was furious; the men never spoke again. Late in life, his wounds somewhat healed, Roth would claim to regret their estrangement. ‘I think you are next after Gordimer,’ he wrote Updike in October 1991. Of course, neither would follow Gordimer, which proved another lasting connection between the men—America’s greatest nonwinners of the Nobel Prize.”

The fascinating article based on letters from the Philip Roth Archive covers a lot more ground than this. Here’s the link.

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Rabbit is one of 25 books that inspired writers to write

Round-up stories are popular features, and for an article that appeared in Nylon Kristin Iversen rounded up 25 writers and asked them what book inspired them to want to be a writer.

“For me,” responded Siobhan Vivian, author of Stay Sweet, “that book was Rabbit, Run by John Updike, which I read during my first semester of undergrad. I was studying to be a screenwriter, and most of my classes were about film but I took a narrative fiction class as an elective, and this was the first book we were assigned.

“I loved how dark and sexy it was, how Rabbit—the protagonist—stayed unlikeable and irredeemable and petulant to the very end. It was unlike anything I’d been assigned to read in high school, a big beautiful middle finger to an English department cannon. And the prose is so lovely, I can still quote lines of description from memory.

“Reading it made me want to subvert expectations, break rules, be a little naughty . . . unsurprising, as I’ve always had a soft spot for bad boys.”

Read the full Nylon article.

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