August 2017

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Like John Updike, Terry Eagleton is a productive writer. The Distinguished Professor of English Literature at Lancaster University has published more than 40 books, among them the popular college text Literary Theory: An Introduction.

Many of his essays and books have been, in some way, contrary. He’s notoriously not a fan of postmodernism, for example, and if one were to judge from a single post uploaded by Jay Rothermel on the Marxist update blog, “Updike and Faulkner: How to Read Fiction by Terry Eagleton,” he’s not much of an Updike fan either.

After citing a passage from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit at Rest, Eagleton pronounces the writing “a highly accomplished piece of writing. Too accomplished, one might feel. It is too clever and calculated by half. Every word seems to have been meticulously chosen, polished, slotted neatly together with the other words and then smoothed over to give a glossy finish. There is not a hair out of place. The sentence is too voulu, too carefully arranged and displayed. It is trying too hard. There is nothing spontaneous about it. It has the air of being over-crafted, as every word is put fastidiously to work, with no loose ends or irregularities. As a result, the piece is artful but lifeless.”

I won’t take Prof. Eagleton to task for that rambling and redundant unpolished paragraph, for if I did, it would betray a bias against spontaneous and unpolished writing, as opposed to Eagleton’s bias against the polished.

As for methodology, Eagleton contrasts Updike’s paragraphs with those of Evelyn Waugh’s, comparing apples and oranges in various ways (poet-writer vs. writer alone, American vs. British, etc.) and praising Waugh’s “honesty and hard-edged realism about it which show up well in contrast to Updike.” Faulkner receives similar praise.

But the issue of bias or personal taste is especially clear if Eagleton’s “analysis” of Updike is considered. He asks readers to consider “this portrait of a female character”:

“Pru has broadened without growing heavy in that suety Pennsylvania way. As if invisible pry bars have slightly spread her bones and new calcium been wedged in and the flesh gently stretched to fit, she now presents more front. Her face, once narrow like Judy’s, at moments looks like a flattened mask. Always tall, she has in the years of becoming a hardened wife and matron allowed her long straight hair to be cut and teased out into bushy wings a little like the hairdo of the Sphinx.”

If any portion of that quote would be considered an example of “trying too hard,” you’d expect it to be the Sphinx reference. Yet, Eagleton says that’s “a pleasing imaginative touch.” He calls the phrase I liked best—”in that suety Pennsylvania way”—one that’s “rather too knowing, and the image of the pry bars is striking but too contrived.”

So is prose when someone has an axe to grind.

James Plath

After holding conferences in Reading, Pa. (2010, 2014), Boston, Mass. (2012), and Columbia, S.C. (2016), The John Updike Society will travel abroad for the first time in in its brief history during the first week of June 2018. The 5th Biennial John Updike Society Conference will be hosted by the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade, in Serbia.

That may pose an economic hardship for some scholars, but relief is available through Schiff Travel Grants.

Thanks to a generous donation from The Robert and Adele Schiff Family Foundation, the society will award up to four $1500 travel-to-conference grants for scholars under 40 to be able to attend the Serbia conference. Applicants need not be members at the time, but must join before grants can be paid.

In addition, up to three $1000 travel-to-conference grants will be awarded to society members needing assistance to be able to participate in the conference.

Both grants are merit- and need-based, and interested scholars should apply by November 30, 2017.

To apply, send a one-page proposal for a 15- to 20-minute paper appropriate for the conference, along with one paragraph about yourself, what grant you are applying for, and why the grant is important to you, to society president James Plath ( The selection committee will make their decisions and announce successful applicants by the end of the first week of December 2017.

The August 15, 2017 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a Lingua Franca piece by Ben Yagoda titled “Of Cans and Cabooses” that begins and ends with the recent court case over singer Taylor Swift’s groping assault but also circles around to John Updike’s famous and frequently anthologized short story, “A&P.”

“The sensitivity and sometimes embarrassment over naming this body part goes way back. In 1960, John Updike submitted to the then-prudish The New Yorker a short story called “A&P,” which contained the line: “She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can.” His editor, William Maxwell, suggested changing can to butt, to which Updike replied:

You must be kidding about “butt.” It’s really just as crude as “can.” I think the real answer is “tail” — but every time I sit down to go over the proof of A&P, I choke up with the silly sacrifice of “can.”

“A compromise was reached in which the young lady was described as having a ‘sweet broad backside.’ Updike restored can when he published ‘A&P’ in a short-story collection.

“Updike’s comment about butt is interesting. I feel that over the past half-century-plus, the word has gotten less crude. I use it in mixed company, and in the classroom on the rare occasions that the topic comes up. But it’s still too informal for The New York Times,” Yagoda writes.

Literary Hub recently posted Margaret Atwood‘s original 1985 review of The Witches of Eastwick:  “Margaret Atwood on Phallus Worship and Updike’s Bad Witches.” In it, she praised the book for its magical realism—a style, or genre, that has eluded American writers.

“These are not 1980’s Womanpower witches,” Atwood writes. “They aren’t at all interested in healing the earth, communing with the Great Goddess, or gaining Power-within (as opposed to Power-over). These are bad Witches, and Power-within, as far as they are concerned, is no good at all unless you can zap somebody with it. They are spiritual descendants of the 17th-century New England strain and go in for sabbats, sticking pins in wax images, kissing the Devil’s backside and phallus worship; this latter though—since it is Updike—is qualified worship.

After describing the book’s premise she writes, “This may sound like an unpromising framework for a serious novelist. Has Mr. Updike entered second childhood and reverted to Rosemary’s babyland? I don’t think so. For one thing, The Witches of Eastwick is too well done. Like Van Horne, Mr. Updike has always wondered what it would be like to be a woman, and his witches give him a lot of scope for this fantasy. Lexa in particular, who is the oldest, the plumpest, the kindest and the closest to Nature, is a fitting vehicle for some of his most breathtaking similes. In line of descent, he is perhaps closer than any other living American writer to the Puritan view of Nature as a lexicon written by God, but in hieroglyphs, so that unending translation is needed. Mr. Updike’s prose, here more than ever, is a welter of suggestive metaphors and cross-references, which constantly point toward a meaning constantly evasive.

“His version of witchcraft is closely tied to both carnality and mortality. Magic is hope in the face of inevitable decay. The houses and the furniture molder, and so do the people. The portrait of Felicia Gabriel, victim wife and degenerate after-image of the one-time ‘peppy’ American cheerleading sweetheart, is gruesomely convincing. Bodies are described in loving detail, down to the last tuft, wart, wrinkle and bit of food stuck in the teeth. No one is better than Mr. Updike at conveying the sadness of the sexual, the melancholy of motel affairs—’amiable human awkwardness,’ Lexa calls it. This is a book that redefines magic realism.

Later, she concludes, “Much of The Witches of Eastwick is satire, some of it literary playfulness and some plain bitchery. It could be that any attempt to analyze further would be like taking an elephant gun to a puff pastry: An Updike should not mean but be. But again, I don’t think so. What a culture has to say about witchcraft, whether in jest or in earnest, has a lot to do with its views of sexuality and power, and especially with the apportioning of powers between the sexes. The witches were burned not because they were pitied but because they were feared. . . .

“Mr. Updike provides no blameless way of being female. Hackles will rise, the word ‘backlash’ will be spoken; but anyone speaking it should look at the men in this book, who, while proclaiming their individual emptiness, are collectively, offstage, blowing up Vietnam. That’s male magic. Men, say the witches, more than once, are full of rage because they can’t make babies, and even male babies have at their center ‘that aggressive vacuum.’ Shazam indeed!”

The Neo-Neocon, in blogging that “It just might be a good time to revisit this quote from Milan Kundera on circle dancing,” cited a long passage from John Updike’s original review of the English translation of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published circa 1980:

“This book…is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out…

“…[T]he mirror does not so readily give back validation with this playful book, more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel, by an expatriate Czech resident in France, fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history. Milan Kundera, he tells us, was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs–’the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half’–who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: ‘And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down.’

“Kundera’s prose presents a surface like that of a shattered mirror, where brightly mirroring fragments lie mixed with pieces of lusterless silvering. The Communists idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself—the most interesting political question of the century–why a plausible and necessarily redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom? Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare?

“The position of a writer from the Socialist world in the West cannot but be uncomfortable. He cannot but despise us for our cheap freedoms, our more subtle enslavements; and we it may be, cannot but condescend to his discovery, at such heavy cost to his life, of lessons that Messrs. Churchill and Truman so roundly read to us 35 years ago.”

Neo-Neocon concludes, “That probably tells you more about Updike’s politics and quality of mind (see much more here) than about Kundera. However, I actually think that, although Kundera doesn’t directly spell out the answer to that ‘most interesting political question of the century,’ the answer is inherent in everything he writes.”

John Updike had a reputation for finding just the right word or phrase to describe something, and one of his spot-on descriptions was recently cited by Treble “zine” reviewer Jeff Terich.

In “Premiere: Biblical space out on new track ‘Fugue State,'” a review from the album The City That Always Sleeps, Terich notes its “tense build-up that releases with an atmospheric, almost shoegazey texture.”

Terich quotes the Toronto band‘s lead vocalist and bassist, Nick Sewell, who implies that Updike was an inspiration:

“We were determined to explore some new sounds for this record and ‘Fugue State’ definitely falls into that category. More than any other song on the record, it really operates with a sense of open space. That gave us plenty of room to experiment, specifically with the vocals which turned out to have a sort of morbid ‘Pet Sounds’ vibe.

“Lyrically, the song is a classic rumination on existential dread—the type you might have in the middle of the night after waking from a bad dream. There’s a poem by John Updike called ‘Perfection Wasted’ that I kept coming back to. It rides a fine line between dry, sardonic wit and tenderness. Definitely the qualities I was hoping to capture with ‘Fugue State.’”

“Perfection Wasted” was included in The Best American Poetry 2016, edited by Edward Hirsch and David Lehman.

It’s been out for quite a while, but it’s just come to our attention that John Updike is included in the sportswriting anthology Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life (Northeastern, 2003), edited by Lawrence Baldassaro and with a foreword by Dom DiMaggio.

As the Amazon description notes:

“It features thirty-five articles by celebrated sportswriters and best-selling authors, including Al Hirschberg (“Handsome Bad Boy of the Boston Red Sox”), Red Smith (“Ted Williams Spits”), Bud Collins (” ‘Saint’ Goes Marching In”), Peter Gammons (“Williams an Unquestioned Hit with Him”), Ed Linn (“The Kid’s Last Game”), John Updike (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”), Donald Hall (“The Necessary Shape of the Old-Timers’ Game”), John Underwood (“Going Fishing with the Kid”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Achieving the Impossible Dream: Ted Williams and.406”), and David Halberstam (“The Perfectionist at the Plate”). Taken together, the pieces offer a vivid mosaic of a true American great who is admired and respected as much by today’s ballplayers and fans as those of his own generation.”

From the Publishers Weekly review:

“A well-selected collection of articles about baseball great Ted Williams, this volume works on many levels. A slice of 20th-century American literature, it chronicles the evolution of sports journalism from Red Smith to Pete Gammons while showcasing selections from literary giants like John Updike and Donald Hall. Arranged chronologically, the collection works as a biographical collage and stunning account of the cyclical nature of American hero worship. Not surprisingly, several less flattering pieces on the cantankerous Williams are included, but instead of detracting from Williams’s legend they help present a comprehensive picture of a man so captivating that more than half this volume’s works were written after his 1960 retirement. Collectively, these articles tell readers almost as much about the featured writers as they do about the slugger himself. This is partly attributable to Williams’s image as the reluctant hero, but also to the fact that Williams courted both favor and disdain with his single-minded determination to make himself the world’s greatest hitter, fisherman, combat pilot and philanthropist, all pursuits as solitary as putting pen to paper. So many of the writers insert themselves into their stories as a means of explaining Williams’s complex personality that the underlying similarity between the slugger and the writers becomes a theme of the collection, exemplifying Williams’s irresistible lure for reporters, novelists, poets and even mathematicians. Thanks to this unprecedented connection between athlete and authors, this compilation stands as a fitting literary epitaph for a man who may never get one set in stone. Illus. not seen by PW.”

Dr. Fred Andrea, pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church, wrote a column on “Faith and Values: How far is away?” for the Aiken Standard in which he begins,

“John Updike’s novel, Rabbit, Run, centers on a man who cannot accept responsibility and, therefore, lives each day with the suffocating feeling of being trapped. Confronted with a decision or a demand, he runs away. When the novel concludes, he is still unable to cope. His marriage is in shambles, his family life is conflicted, his friends have all abandoned him. Miserable and frustrated, he still cannot decide what to do, and so avoids doing anything. The final scene is set on a summer evening and reads as follows:

“‘As he goes down the stairs, worries come as quick as the sound of his footsteps. Guilt and responsibility slide together like substantial shadows inside his chest. Outside in the air his fears coalesce. Afraid, really afraid, he remembers what once consoled him—and lifted his eyes to the unlit windows of a nearby church.’

“‘Rabbit comes to the curb, but instead of going to the right and around the block, he steps down with as big a feeling as if this little side street is a wide river – and runs. His hands lift of their own, and he feels the wind on his ears, even before his heels hitting the pavement at first, but with an effortless gathering, out of a kind of sweet panic, growing lighter and quieter and quicker, he runs. Ah, runs. RUNS!'”

Before shifting to talk about the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who also ran away, Andrea asks, “How many persons at this very hour are running away, trying to hide or to escape? Some do it in the name of liberation, believing they are free only when they have no limiting obligation or responsibilities. Others run away to avoid facing themselves, and some are running away from love and from God.”

Read the whole column.

The Silicon Valley period drama Halt and Catch Fire, an AMC original TV series about the computer revolution and the emergence of the Internet, recently aired its two-part Season 3 premiere, and Updike-savvy viewers will have recognized that the story Joe reads to Cameron in the episode “Signal to Noise” is none other than the frequently anthologized “Pigeon Feathers.”

It’s a double stroll down memory lane, as the show reminds viewers that when the World Wide Web first debuted, there were no graphic browsers at all, UPROXX reports.

“‘Halt And Catch Fire’ Takes Another Leap In Its Final Season Premiere”

When you see an article titled “The Best Books Based in Every State” at Travel + Leisure magazine, you expect John Updike to turn up as the choice for Pennsylvania. After all, two of the “Rabbit” novels won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. But this new article from Lydia Mansel names Jerry Spinell’s Maniac Magee as the best book from the Keystone State: “Jeffrey Lionel ‘Maniac’ Magee is now an orphan and looking for a home in a town in Pennsylvania, a town based on the author’s childhood home in Norristown. He’s also a local legend, thanks to his athleticism and courage.”

Updike still turns up on the list, though, as author of the best book set in Rhode Island:  The Witches of Eastwick. “In a quaint coastal town in Rhode Island there are three witches—Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie—who developed powers after losing their husbands to death or divorce. Soon, Darryl Van Horne moves in, and all kinds of chaos ensue. Seduction, humor, and revenge reign in John Updike’s magical little town of Eastwick.”

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