August 2016

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Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 7.14.33 AMTwenty-eight eulogies of “intellectuals like Susan Sontag, Christopher Hitchens and Eric Hobsbawn; musicians like Sun Ra, MCA (Beastie Boys) and Kurt Cobain; writers like David Foster Wallace, John Updike and Tom Clancy; artists like Thomas Kinkade and Robert Rauschenberg; and controversial political figures like Osama bin Laden and Mikhail Kalashnikov” are included in Dead People, by Stefany Anne Golberg and 2013 Whiting Award winner Morgan Meis.

David Lull reports that the essay by Meis on Updike was first published on the Smart Set website as “Updike the Synthesizer.” 

In it, Meis cites a descriptive passage of Updike’s and observes, “Reading the above passage from Rabbit, Run, I felt like I was reading one of [John] Dos Passos’ Newsreels. But it also made me realize how much Dos Passos’ USA, brilliant as it is, is a kind of failure. Dos Passos never came up with a sufficient technique by which the bits of actual experience, the real stuff of the time, the names, the brands, the popular songs, etc., could live in the individual stories he was trying to tell. Dos Passos puts those things into his novel, but he has to keep them separate, he has to show that they are ultimately ephiphenomenal to the ‘real’ story.

“Amazingly and consistently, but for the one passage in which he resorts to that long list of stuff on the radio, Updike resists the impulse to divide levels of experience. There is a kind of deep metaphysical democracy to Updike’s prose. The details matter, the specific show being watched on television, the kind of car being driven, because those details are wrapped up in the substance of the experience.”

The deadline to register for the 4th Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Columbia, South Carolina, October 12-15, 2016, is fast approaching. Registration is $150 and increases to $185 after September 1, but members and others are encouraged to make that deadline to enable conference director Don Greiner and host University of South Carolina Libraries to finalize conference plans.

State House


It’s all very convenient and compact, with the conference held on the campus of the University of South Carolina, the Inn at the University of South Carolina serving as the official conference hotel, and the bar of that hotel open for conference attendees Thursday through Saturday.

Here is the updated conference schedule, including paper titles and names of presenters:  4th JUS Conference Schedule (updated)

Conference highlights:

• Keynote address by Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame (Mr. Keillor says he’s eager to hear what Updike scholars have to say)
• Inaugural Rabbit Open golf tournament (optional/all skill levels welcome)
• Book-length catalogue of the Don and Ellen Greiner Updike Collection (free to all attendees)
• Broadside featuring a comment about Updike by Keillor, suitable for framing (and autographing)
• Major Updike exhibit (16 cases) of typescripts, inscriptions, broadsides, limited editions, two love poems Updike wrote at age 10, etc.
• Special presentation by two of Updike’s children, Miranda and David Updike
• Opportunity to examine rare and seldom displayed 19th and 20th century American literature artifacts and literary items (Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Hawthorne, Melville, Howells, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Heller, etc.)
• Plenary talk on Updike collections by Leslie Morris (Houghton Library) and Elizabeth Sudduth (USC Libraries)
• DVD presentation of Updike delivering his controversial talk “On Literary Biography” at USC
• Tour of Civil War sites like the State House (pictured above) and the USC “Horseshoe,” which Gen. Sherman spared on his march through the South because the campus buildings were being used as a hospital for both sides; the South Caroliniana Library (pictured below), on the Horseshoe, was built in 1840 and was the first freestanding college library in the nation.
• Slideshow presentation on the location of the 5th John Updike Society Biennial Conference in June 2018, with keynote speaker also announced.

Though attendees must be members of the society, all are welcome to join and experience this celebration of manuscripts, research, and special collections, with a focus on John Updike.




Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.52.15 AMIn “The Genius of William Shawn, and the Invention of The New Yorker,” David Remnick praises Shawn’s sharp eye for talent,

“that essential component of any institution that wishes to develop: new talent with new things to say. The ’50s saw the rise of one such talent in particular, John Updike, who, for the next 55 years, was an unfailingly prolific and versatile contributor to The New Yorker. His fine-grained prose was there from the start, and, with time, his sharp-eyed intelligence alighted on seemingly every surface, subject, and subtext. Updike was, out of the box, an American writer of first rank. He was profoundly at home at The New Yorker and, at the same time, able to expand the boundaries of its readers’ tastes. He could seem tweedy and suburban—a modern, golf-playing squire—and yet, as a critic, he introduced to the magazine’s readers an array of modernists and postmodernists, along with writing from countries far beyond the Anglo-American boundaries; as a writer of fiction, he was not a revolutionary, but his short stories make up a vast social, political, and erotic history of postwar America, or at least some precincts of it.”

Here’s the full article.


The Boston Public Library in Copley Square recently underwent a $78 million renovation, and one new feature is a “Literary Awards Wall” in the Fiction section featuring authors with a Massachusetts connection who have won an award.

“Writers like John Updike and Dennis LeHane are already up on the wall, but there’s plenty of room for future authors,” the article says.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.34.09 AMIn a summer New York Times Book Review interview, “Cynthia Ozick: By the Book,” Ozick mentions Updike in her very first response. Asked what books are currently on her night stand, she replies,

“Nowadays my night stand is a roughly cubical archaeological mount (33 by 25 inches), long awaiting shelf space. From a middle stratum I’ve excavated the regenerative pleasures of rediscovery—all old books: John Updike’s Villages (an aching reminder of the absence of that steadily remarkable literary voice); a Library of America collection of four novels by William Dean Howells (who ought to be venerated at least as much as Willa Cather, if not more); Frank Kermode’s Pieces of My Mind (consummate reflections on subjects ranging from Don DeLillo and Raymond Carver to ‘Secrets and Narrative Sequence’). And from a lower lode, a pair of memoirs by two boyhood escapees from Nazified Vienna, marking Austria’s loss of a stellar composer and a questioning poet: Robert Starer’s Continuo: A Life in Music and Arthur Gregor’s A Longing in the Land. Finally, on the mound always accreting surface, a weighty volume turned upside down to conceal the face on its cover: a new biography of Adolph Hitler by Volker Ullrich, translated from the German, not yet opened. Will I read it? Will I? Sometimes repugnance overrides psychological curiosity, and sometimes psychological curiosity is no more illuminating than pornography.”

The illustration is by Jillian Tamaki.


In a piece that appeared in New York Magazine on July 1, 2016, an anonymous author asked, “Does Writing Too Much Make You a Hack?”

“We think of hacks as turning out slick prose bereft of inspiration. As somebody once asked about John Updike, ‘Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?’ (The person who raised the question [David Foster Wallace] had recently published a thousand-page novel with a couple hundred pages of endnotes.) Hacks write so much that we stop reading them. In a culture still enamored of the romantic idea of writerly inspiration, hacks are only too sane, with their formulaic helpings of the familiar. Funny that just a few degrees further on the spectrum of the prolific are graphomaniacs, who are literally insane.

“But there’s a class of prolific writers who are neither nuts nor mercenaries (as all hacks are). They are the ones apt to say things like ‘I’m not even faintly myself when I’m not writing,’ as Saul Bellow confided in a letter to Stanley Elkin. Writers who follow their own star may be guilty of many sins and imperfections related to overproduction, but ultimately that output is a sign of health. ‘Sloth in writers is always a symptom of an acute inner conflict,’ Cyril Connolly wrote, ‘especially that laziness which renders them incapable of doing the thing which they are most looking forward to.’ I’d swap ‘often’ in for ‘always.’ We don’t live in a world where you have to choose between Updike (nearly 30 novels, some great, some not) and Renata Adler (two perfect ones), but if we did I would prefer Adler’s. Then again, Updike is a sign that inner conflict itself isn’t required for refinement: He claimed to be a one-draft writer who simply abandoned projects if he didn’t think they were working. Ultimately, the question ‘How much?’ yields to the question ‘How good?’ We worry about whether writers are too prolific only because numbers are easier to talk about than words and what they mean.”

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.10.11 AMUpdike was as prolific as he was critically acclaimed and popularly successful. He also gave a lot of interviews, so it’s no surprise that his name turns up on a compilation of “Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers,” posted on the brainpickings blog by Maria Popova.

Updike pops up twice:

63. John Updike: Writing and Death
“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”

70. John Updike: Making Money, How to Have a Productive Daily Routine, and the Most Important Things for Aspiring Writers to Know
“In a country this large and a language even larger . . . there ought to be a living for somebody who cares and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

This past Father’s Day Electric Lit came out with a list of bad dads, and, no shocker, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom made the top . . . or rather, bottom 10:

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 9.05.29 AM“Janet Angstrom made our list of Worst Mothers in Literature, but that doesn’t mean that Rabbit isn’t an equally terrible husband and father. He’s a washed up ex-high school basketball star who can’t deal with adulthood. He abandons his family, knowing full well that his wife is struggling as a recovering alcoholic, and has an affair. Selfish and immature, Rabbit contributes to the sad fate of his family just as much as his wife.”

Joining Harry on the list are Humbert Humbert (Lolita), Alexander Zalachenko (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series), James MacNamara (Down by the River), David Melrose (Never Mind), Jack Torrance (The Shining), Glen Waddell (Bastard out of Carolina), Eugene Achike (Purple Hibiscus), Culla (Outer Dark), and Old Nick (Room).

Screen Shot 2016-08-09 at 7.15.27 AMRemember, The John Updike Society can benefit from your Amazon shopping. If you shop Amazon, please use and bookmark this link. There are no added charges, and you can help the society if you use the AmazonSmile portal.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 9.31.18 AMIn “11 Pieces of Literary Proof Marriage Has Never Been Easy,” posted on the blog Signature: Making Well-Read Sense of the World, Lisa Rosman creates a list of 11 that probably could have gone well into the 30s. Updike, of course, makes her list, along with Ovid (Metamorphoses) and Virgil (The Georgics), William Shakespeare (Macbeth), Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina), Gustav Flaubert (Madame Bovary), Edith Wharton (The Age of Innocence), Virginia Woolf (Mrs. Dalloway), Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Alice Walker (The Color Purple), Stephen King (The Shining), and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale).

Of the Updike selection, Too Far to Go, she writes,

“I’d be remiss if I omitted something by Updike, who captured the sensual disarray of mid-twentieth-century couples like nobody else. People tout his Rabbit chronicles but it’s in this tale of musical chairs-style couples that he best distills the sweet, slow longings of middle-class married life.”