May 2017

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Biljana Dojčinović, director of the upcoming June 2018 Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Belgrade, Serbia, assigned two of her graduate students the task of finding out more about Updike’s visit to the city back in 1978, when it was still a part of Yugoslavia.

Sanja Sudar researched newspaper and magazine articles describing Updike’s visit; Nemanja Glintić researched documents of the Writers Union, especially pertaining to how Updike came to be invited and what the itinerary was like for the visiting writers. Colleagues from the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade translated the students’ reports into English.

“I hope this will be interesting reading,” Dojčinović said. Complete conference registration information will be made available within the next several weeks, but with interest running high the society wanted to share the students’ research right away, with gratitude to both of them and their translators:

Updike in Belgrade: (Until) 1978,” written by Sanja Sudar and translated by Milica Abramović, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade.

The Narrative Report: The Association of Serbian Writers Preparations for the 15th International Writers October Summit in Belgrade in 1978 — John Updike,” written by Nemanja Glintić and translated by Anja Radić, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade.

The above photo is a screen capture from a media clip of the interview conducted at the Writers Union in 1978, reprinted here courtesy of RTS (Radio and TV Serbia). The full clip can be seen at the society’s Facebook page.

Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference Call for Papers


It’s been out for a year, but sometimes it takes a while to discover academic books. One of those titles that was displayed at the recent American Literature Association conference in Boston was Aging Masculinity in the American Novel, by Alex Hobbs, published by Rowman & Littlefield in May 2016.

In a chapter titled “Late Writing,” Hobbs focuses on John Updike, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy, while in her conclusion she asks,

“Why should sexual identity be any less valued than professional identity, for example? Roland Blythe contends, ‘Old age is not an emancipation from desire for most of us, that is a large part of its tragedy. . . . Most of all [the old] want to be wanted.’ This is certainly accurate for Roth and Updike’s protagonists, and, to a lesser degree, perhaps, Paul Auster, Ethan Canin, and Anne Tyler’s characters, too. The long-term pessimism that is displayed by Roth and Updike’s men, but not by those in Auster, Canin, and Tyler’s novels, arguably stems from the way they try to use sexual relationships as their project; they rely on women to make their life whole and worthwhile. Thus, while there should be no vilification of the need or desire to retain an active sex life in old age, the characters analyzed here indicate that it is unhealthy to make this the sole focus for this stage of life. ”

Amazon link

Hobbes earned her doctorate in English from Anglia Ruskin University and teaches through The Open University. Her critical essays have appeared in Journal of American Culture, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, and Philip Roth Studies.

Roemer and Constance McPhee, whose support helped The John Updike Society to go all out and hire a historic restoration specialist to bring The John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pa. back to the way it was when Updike lived there from “age zero to 13,” have received the society’s Distinguished Service Award.

In presenting the award at the society’s business meeting on Thursday, May 25, at the Westin Copley Place Hotel in Boston, society president James Plath recalled a phone call he received in December 2012 from “a man named Roemer McPhee, who told me he’d read about our efforts to turn The John Updike Childhood Home into a museum and wanted to help by sending us a check for $3000.” McPhee was a big John Updike fan and thought it was a perfect opportunity to give the writer his due.

Since that first donation, H. Roemer McPhee III—an author himself (The Boomer’s Guide to Story: A Search for Insight in Literature and Film) and a New York investor who studied at Princeton and the Wharton Graduate School of Business—has demonstrated his love of Updike by driving to Shillington to tour the house and Updike sites with his mother and later attended the Third Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pa. with his wife and co-benefactor, Connie. Through their PECO Foundation, Roemer and Connie have contributed more than $70,000 over the years to help with the restoration, making them the second largest donor, behind the Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, whose initial donation enabled the society to purchase the home. With some work still outstanding and museum display cases needed, the McPhees have also pledged additional help and said they are considering joining society members in Belgrade, Serbia for the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference in June 2018.

“It’s fairly common to find foundations that care enough about a cause to donate money,” Plath said, “but to have the people behind those organizations also become involved on a personal level and to be so knowledgeable about Updike that they can discuss texts such as the Rabbit novels with members, that’s highly unusual, and it underscores the impact that Updike had as a writer.”

Because of their shared love of John Updike and his works, and because of the passion they’ve shown and the impact they’ve had in helping the society to fulfill its mission, the board of directors of The John Updike Society unanimously voted to award Roemer and Constance McPhee the society’s Distinguished Service Award, Plath said.

Over the nine years that The John Updike Society has been in existence, the society has given Distinguished Service Awards to James Yerkes, for his important contributions to Updike scholarship through The Centaurian print and online newsletter; Conrad Vanino, whose pro bono work as realtor helped the society acquire The John Updike Childhood Home and who continues to act as the society’s agent; and The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, whose generous support enabled the purchase and restoration of The John Updike Childhood Home.

Roemer McPhee’s most recent book is Killing the Market: Legendary Investor Robert W. Wilson.

The John Updike Society has held four successful conferences, and the upcoming Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference is already shaping up to be one of the best. Below is a preliminary schedule for the conference. Registration information will follow shortly. Note that “on own” means that for logistical reasons the cost is not included in the basic academic conference registration. Note too that the day trip will be an additional cost. Most people in Belgrade speak some English, but bilingual graduate students will be available to help as guides. Those wishing to share research should see the Call for Papers.

DAY 1—Friday, June 1

5:30-7:15pm—Registration open

6:00-7:15pm—Reception hosted by the Faculty of Philology

7:30-7:40pm—Welcome by the Dean of the Faculty of Philology and President of the Society

7:40-9pm—Opening Keynote: Ian McEwan (talk, questions, booksigning)

DAY 2—Saturday, June 2

8:30am-1pm—Registration open

8:30-9:20am—Plenary Session (Panel: Translating Updike)

9:45-11am—Academic Sessions (two concurrent, three papers each plus moderator)

11:15am-12:15pm—Keynote: Prof. Alexander Shurbanov (Updike’s Bulgarian translator)

12:30-2pm—Lunch at Writer’s Union Club (where Updike had lunch; includes a look at the press conference room where Updike was interviewed)

2:30-5:30pm—Tour of the Tesla Museum (pictured below)

6-8pm—Reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Kyle Randolph Scott

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Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference director Biljana Dojčinović, Professor in the Dept. of Comparative Literature and Theory of Literature, Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade, Serbia, has put together a teaser for the upcoming conference in Serbia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. All are welcome to attend. Registration details will be announced soon on the John Updike Society website and Facebook page, but for now, mark June 1-5 2018 on your calendars.

Call for Papers

BBC Travel article on “Serbia: the place to be; A Rich History and Culture,” which includes “The Perfect Belgrade Itinerary,” subtitled, “Forget Berlin, Paris or Rome: for a city break rich in culture, history, scenery and gastronomy, yet unspoiled by the tourist masses, try Belgrade instead”

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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.

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