January 2017

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Literary Hub today reminded readers of the late novelist David Foster Wallace‘s famous attack on John Updike and “the Great Male Narcissists” in his 1997 review of Toward the End of Time, published originally in the Observer. In fact, they posted the entire review, in case you missed it.

In his review, Wallace begins, “Mailer, Updike, Roth—the Great Male Narcissists who’ve dominated postwar realist fiction are now in their senescence, and it must seem to them no coincidence that the prospect of their own deaths appears backlit by the approaching millennium and on-line predictions of the death of the novel as we know it. When a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him. And no U.S. novelist has mapped the solipsist’s terrain better than John Updike, whose rise in the 60’s and 70’s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

Toward the End of Time Wallace calls “the worst” of the 25 Updike books he’d read to date, “a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.”

In the same review he talks about literary readers he knows and admits they are all under 40, and “none of them are big admirers of the postwar G.M.N.’s. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason—mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back: ‘Just a penis with a thesaurus.'”

Sounds like penis (with a thesaurus) envy. Read the full review.

Broadwayworld.com reported that playwright Mark St. Germain is adapting John Updike’s “prequel” to Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the stage. Orlando Shakespeare Theater has commissioned the project, and a staged reading of the Gertrude and Claudius play “will be featured at the Theater’s annual play festival, PlayFest 2017 presented by Harriett’s Charitable Trust, and is scheduled to receive a world premiere in 2019 as part of Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s 30th Season.”

The BWW Newsdesk article reports that Orlando Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jim Helsinger has wanted to produce a stage version of Updike’s bestselling novel “since he read the book upon its initial release in 2001.”

“‘Hamlet is Shakespeare’s most famous and popular play, and the idea that we can dive deeper into its legendary cast of characters is really exciting,’ said Helsinger. ‘Updike’s narrative fills out the backstory of the love affair between Gertrude and Claudius perfectly and we could not think of a better playwright to adapt it for us than Mark St. Germain,” whose projects are often based on historical fiction or fact. One of his previous literary projects was Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, a 2013 play that explores a night F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway spend together at the Garden of Allah apartments in Los Angeles.

Visit www.orlandoshakes.org for more information on the Orlando Shakespeare Theater.

A book review of Gregor Hens’s Nicotine written for The Atlantic begins,

“Writers have long found rich fodder for their work in their leisure pursuits. John Updike, writing about golf in The New York Times in 1973, described the pastime as ‘a non-chemical hallucinogen’ that ‘breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria.’ Sketching out a particularly lucid paragraph about the act of preparing for a stroke, he confessed, ‘got me so excited I had to rush out into the yard and hit a few shots, even though it was pitch dark, and only the daffodils showed.’

“Updike’s experience of transcendence while playing golf—his sense of tapping in to a kind of acute concentration that alters perception—is echoed vividly in the German writer Gregor Hens’s new memoir of sorts, Nicotine,” reviewer Sophie Gilbert writes.

Nicotine, she says, “enters a kind of sub-genre of literary memoirs focused around a single practice or obsession, in which the object or activity enables the writer to achieve sharper focus, heightened consciousness, and creative fire. Like Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and Updike’s writing on golf, it illuminates the writerly quest for the elusive state the Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi named, simply, ‘flow.’ Smoking, Hens seems to believe, transformed him into a writer by expanding his sense of what was real and what was perceivable. It physically and irreparably altered the pathways in his brain. And it punctuated and constructed the order of his professional life.”

Read the full review.

schiff-130x150The John Updike Letters Project

For those who may have missed the announcement, The John H. Updike Literary Trust has named John Updike Society vice president James Schiff as editor of a volume of John Updike’s letters.

Schiff, who edits The John Updike Review, expects to complete the project in 2020 and has begun collecting letters from institutional libraries, in addition to requesting them from private owners and recipients.

If you have letters, notes, or postcards from John Updike—a single one, or many—Schiff would appreciate receiving photocopies or digital scans. All materials and inquiries will be handled with care and discretion.

Contact:  James Schiff, 2 Forest Hill Dr., Cincinnati, OH  45208; (513) 284-6012; james.schiff@uc.edu.


49473197-cachedDonald Trump is in the news again (still), this time with media outlets reporting on new allegations regarding the president-elect, his ties to Russia, and a bizarre twist some in the Twittersphere are calling “#watersportsgate.” In a story titled “Americans Deserve to Know the Specific Allegations on Trump and Russia; Trump’s sex life is his own affair. But his ties to foreign autocrats—whether Russian, Chinese, or Emirati—should have been fully aired long before now,” written for The Nation by D.D. Guttenplan, the author writes about a newly revealed dossier that “accuses Trump and his campaign of knowingly conspiring with Putin’s government to influence the U.S. election in his favor, in return for an explicit promise ‘to sideline Russian intervention in the Ukraine as a campaign issue.'” The dossier also contained information of a more personal nature, that had some wondering whether it was appropriate for public dissemination.

“But once the dossier was in circulation, among not only reporters on the intelligence and campaign beats but also politicians, intelligence officials, and law-enforcement agents—with President Obama and President-elect Trump both given official briefings on its contents—then yes, the people do have a right to know not just in summary terms but in detail what has been alleged. Even when those details include sexual conduct that many Americans (and the British daytime-television audience) might find shocking—unless, that is, they were fans of John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, which introduced “golden showers” into the (pardon the expression) mainstream way back in 1981.

“Diverting as the details are—and given what Trump has not just admitted but boasted of doing in the past, such practices, even if true and captured for posterity by the FSB, are hardly likely to disqualify him—the central questions remain fundamentally political. Because Trump’s resemblance to a broken clock—right about the need to restore American manufacturing, and to seek common ground with Russia on issues ranging from Iran to nuclear proliferation to combating ISIS; wrong on just about everything else—isn’t just a problem for the left. Bernie Sanders seems to have figured out a way to challenge Trump without playing into the narrative of elitist derision; the rest of us are still struggling.”

Anyone struggling to grasp the meaning of the expression “golden showers” might turn to an article written for The Daily Beast on “Wet and Wild: The History of ‘Golden Showers’; ‘Germaphobe’ Donald Trump denied being turned on by ‘golden showers.’ But the sexual practice has an endless stream of other fans.” In it, Lizzie Crocker writes,

“At the end of John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, the novel’s prejudiced, patriotic, angsty, lust-crazed protagonist urinates on his wife’s friend—who, in turn, urinates on him—during a vacation to Puerto Rico.

“The golden shower is an unorthodox sexual activity even for Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom, whose very nickname evokes an impulsive, frenetic creature with an undiscerning sexual appetite.

“President-elect Trump has insisted he’s never read the book, but given his contempt for the truth and the now-infamous, unverified report that he enjoys being peed on, one wonders if our soon-to-be POTUS’s particular sexual proclivity was inspired by Updike’s fictional American everyman?”


screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-12-49-50-pmSouth Carolina may still be a fresh memory, but it’s time for Updike scholars and aficionados to look ahead to June 2018, when the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference will be held in Belgrade, Serbia. Please note that one day has been added to the schedule, and the conference will now take place June 1-5 2018.

Conference director Biljana Dojčinović has issued a first-call-for-papers to be presented at the conference, which will be co-sponsored and hosted by the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade.

To give people plenty of time to plan for the trip, Biljana will respond to proposals within two weeks of receipt, with rolling acceptances. As with previous conferences, moderators are also sought.

ALL topics will be considered, but especially appropriate for this conference are paper proposals for the following:

  • Updike in Translation
  • Updike and Traveling
  • Updike in the U.S.S.R.
  • Updike in (Post)Socialist Countries
  • Updike and Religion(s) and Idealogies (socialism, pacifism, etc.)
  • Updike and Gender Politics
  • Updike and Ethnic Politics
  • Coming of Age in Updike’s Fiction
  • Aging in Updike’s Fiction
  • Narrative Techniques in Updike’s Fiction
  • Narration in Updike’s Poetry
  • Intertextuality in Updike’s Fiction
  • Updike in Comparative Perspectives

and also papers dealing with Updike works celebrating a milestone anniversary in 2018:

  • Couples (50th)
  • The Coup (40th)
  • S. (30th)
  • Collected Poems and Love Factories (25th)
  • Bech at Bay (20th)
  • The Widows of Eastwick (10th)

Interested scholars should consult the complete call for papers for additional information and contact Biljana with any questions: jus5thconference@gmail.com.


screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-12-25-01-pmIn a scholarly essay posted January 9, 2017 on The Other Journal website, Lauren D. Sawyer considers Updike’s controversial character Skeeter from Rabbit Redux in a larger context:  “No Savior at All:  Updike’s Black Jesus and the White Church.”

There is much to digest here—too much to excerpt, except for the author’s concluding paragraph:

“In Black Theology and Black Power, [“father of black liberation theology” James] Cone writes that ‘the time has come for white Americans to be silent and listen to black people.’ It is clear that white Americans, and in particular the white church, have not listened well. We have insisted that our culture be the norm, making it difficult to embrace the blackness of Beyoncé, let alone broader representations of blackness in America. We have insisted that our Christ be white and have used him to justify racism from slavery to the mass incarceration of black men. Maybe what we need is a black Jesus to come and disrupt our perspective, to show us the extent of our sin. Updike’s black Jesus does not quite get us there. He may reveal to us, the white church, our sin, but he does not offer liberation to black lives. Skeeter as Christ functions only to help the white church begin to address its privilege and racism by forcing us to see our racism for what it is. To black lives, Skeeter is pure antichrist—he is a misrepresentation of what it means to be black and is thus no savior at all. It is the black Jesus imagined by Cone who fully functions as Christ to both black and white lives: liberating black persons from oppression and liberating white persons from their role as oppressor.”

Read the full essay.

You’ve heard the debate. Probably participated, as well. Is there a Great American Novel?

literary-map-of-us-america-reads-anthologyEmily Temple, writing for Lit Hub, takes readers back to 1868 when John William DeForest “coined the now inescapable term ‘the great American novel’ in the title of an essay in The Nation—a term he defined as representing “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” DeForest thought that the Great American Novel hadn’t been written yet, but since his early speculation there’s been no shortage of “contenders.”

Temple assembles a list of the usual suspects plus a few unique ones, among them (of course) John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (or rather, the collective Rabbit tetralogy). She blurbs each entry with a learned quote. For Updike it’s one from Troy Patterson written for Slate in 2009: “To consider the 1,700-odd pages of his Harry Angstrom saga—the bounding tetralogy of Rabbit books and their limping postscript—is to find yourself considering a work with an excellent claim as the Great American Novel, but you’d be forgiven for preferring to spend time with four or five Very Good ones.”

Other contenders on Temple’s non-exhaustive list are:

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis
The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Underworld, Don DeLillo
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
U.S.A., John Dos Passos
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Light in August, William Faulkner
Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos
Beloved, Toni Morrison
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz
These Dreams of You, Steve Erickson
The Flame Throwers, Rachel Kushner

Rabbit-RunRESIZED-280x393Rabbit, Run has been reviewed hundreds of times, but this one—posted on Sportsblog January 5, 2017—is a little different:  “Book Review: Rabbit, Run, by John Updike; Running in Israel.”

Or, rather, not running. As the author writes, “In Rabbit, Run, the protagonist’s method for dealing with feeling trapped is to run away. In my case, not being able to run has been among the chief factors contributing to my feeling trapped.

“It was a rough December for Jerusalem—cold, wet and dark. . . . Early in the month I missed almost a full week of work with what might have been pneumonia or bronchitis—probably weather-induced. . . . The whole rest of the month the respiratory issues lingered, making it difficult to sleep and to function in general,” the author writes.

“Very little running was going on all this time. Winter had like a battering ram broken through my defensive fortifications, work held me prisoner in my chamber, and there they gave me Rabbit, Run to read, to gnaw away at my spirit from within.

“John Updike’s 1960 novel is that powerful. It spreads through the reader like a tea bag in hot water. Consciously, I didn’t like the first half; yet the story had seeped into the seedbed of my subconscious, where it settled, established itself, germinated, grew. I felt it there during the day, felt Harry Angstrom’s character moving, doing things, haunting like a ghost. I read on without enjoyment, annoyed, frustrated, but also strangely captivated, drawn in against my will.”

The author found Rabbit, Run depressing enough to Google “cheerful novel” in order to have “something encouraging to look forward to after Rabbit. Alas, what I ended up reading was The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty, an infuriatingly bad book that somehow won a Pulitzer in 1973.”

The author concludes, “Rabbit, Run gets four stars. If it weren’t for that quagmire of a first half, it would be a must-reread.”

511soikvlkl-_sx329_bo1204203200_The New Yorker has released a third volume in a decade-by-decade anthology series collecting pieces published in the famed magazine that best reflect each decade.

John Updike pops up several times in The ’60s: The Story of a Decade, which was published in hardcover on October 25, 2016. The substantial volume, published by Random House, runs 720 pages, and as a starred Kirkus review gushed, “The contributor list is an embarrassment of riches . . . The hits continue. Bring on the ’70s.”

Included are pieces from Renata Adler, Roger Angell, Hannah Arendt, Michael J. Arlen, James Baldwin, Whitney Balliett, Donald Barthelme, Jacob Brackman, Truman Capote, Rachel Carson, John Cheever, Henry S.F. Cooper, Jr., James Dickey, Mavis Gallant, Brendan Gill, Penelope Gilliatt, Emily Hahn, Geoffrey T. Hellman, Nat Hentoff, Hendrik Hertzberg, Ted Hughes, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Randall Jarrell, Pauline Kael, E.J. Kahn, Jr., Katharine T. Kinkead, Hans Koningsberger, Jane Kramer, Daniel Lang, Flora Lewis, A.J. Liebling, Andy Logan, D. Lowe, Dwight MacDonald, Donald Malcolm, Terrence Malick, Faith McNulty, John McPhee, Thomas Meehan, Ved Mehta, James Merrill, Jonathan Miller, Lewis Mumford, Howard Nemerov, F.S. Norman, Sylvia Plath, Robert Rice, Harold Rosenberg, Lillian Ross, Richard H. Rovere, Muriel Rukeyser, Xavier Rynne, Jonathan Schell, Winthrop Sergeant, Ann Sexton, Isaac Bashevis Singer, L.E. Sissman, Muriel Spark, George Steiner, James Stevenson, Donald Stewart, May Swenson, Calvin Trillin, George W.S. Trow, Kenneth Tynan, John Updike, Kevin Wallace, Joseph Wechsberg, E.B. White, Thomas Whiteside, and Ellen Willis.

Here’s the Amazon link.




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