September 2017

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Updike’s portrayal of Islamism in Terrorist has generally been praised, but a dissenting voice appears in “The (Mis)Representation of Islam in John Updike’s Terrorist,” a critique by research scholar Abdul Haseeb, Dept. of English and Modern European Languages, University of Lucknow, Lucknow, U.P. India that was published in IJELLH, the International Journal of English Language, Literature in Humanities.

His abstract:

In the post 9/11 literary scene there occurred an increased number of publications of novels that discussed the various types of Islamism (Political Islam) and have explored the complex relationship between the West, which is proud of having a secular world, and the East, especially the Muslim world, accused of fostering religious terrorism against the secular world. It is not surprising to find a long list of such novels as it is the general perception that the 9/11 attacks are the outcome of the complex relationship between the West and the Muslim world. These novels pick Islam as their subject showing its implications on both the people of the West and the Muslims themselves who are introducing Islam to the West, or they choose one or a group of Muslim youths who carry a fundamentalist ideology of their religion and dare to counteract the godless, materialistic West. The present paper is a modest attempt to expose how John Updike’s Terrorist (2006) has projected Islam as the root-cause of terrorism and its teachings as the springhead of extremist ideology.

Here is the link to a link to view the full paper.

Laugh-In used to punningly ask viewers to look something up in their Funk & Wagnall’s, but in an example of Updike turning up in the most unlikely places the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists a sentence from Trust Me (1987) as an example of the usage of “feign” in a sentence.

Who knows how many more entries we might find examples from an American writer with an astoundingly vast vocabulary?

 

On his blog, Snakes and Ladders, Alan Jacobs posted an entry on “Richard Thompson: creativity from resistance” that begins,

“Many years ago now John Updike noted his response to much modern art: ‘we feel in each act not only a plenitude (ambition, intuition, expertise, delight, etc.) but an absence—a void that belongs to these creative acts: Nothing is preventing them.’ Art thrives, Updike believed, on resistance, on something pushing back hard against the artistic impulse. So, for Updike, this is what the city of Dublin as it was in 1904 did for James Joyce: it resisted him, it demanded to be accounted for and respected. And the greatness of Ulysses derives at least in part from Joyce’s willingness to reckon honestly with that resistance.”

Read the entire blog post in which Jacobs discusses neglected singer-songwriter Thompson, “who first came to public attention fifty years ago (!) as the leader of Fairport Convention” and includes an embedded video of Thompson.

Fellow Harvard alum and novelist Alec Nevala-Lee (The Icon Thief, City of Exiles, Eternal Empire) recently posted thoughts on “Updike’s Ladder,” whose clichéd meteoric rise “is like lifestyle porn for writers” than more often than not struggle to gain traction in their writing careers or find any meaningful audience for their work. Quoting from the Adam Begley biography, he notes,

“[Updike] never forgot the moment when he retrieved the envelope from the mailbox at the end of the drive, the same mailbox that had yielded so many rejection slips, both his and his mother’s: ‘I felt, standing and reading the good news in the midsummer pink dusk of the stony road beside a field of waving weeds, born as a professional writer.’ To extend the metaphor . . . the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.

“If you’re a writer of any kind, you’re probably biting your hand right now. And I haven’t even gotten to what happened to Updike shortly afterward” (again, quoting from Begley):

“A letter from Katharine White [of The New Yorker] dated September 15, 1954 and addressed to ‘John H. Updike, General Delivery, Oxford,’ proposed that he sign a ‘first-reading agreement,’ a scheme devised for the ‘most valued and most constant contributors.’ Up to this point, he had only one story accepted, along with some light verse. White acknowledged that it was ‘rather unusual’ for the magazine to make this kind of offer to a contributor ‘of such short standing,’ but she and Maxwell and Shawn took into consideration the volume of his submissions . . . and their overall quality and suitability, and decided that this clever, hard-working young man showed exceptional promise.

“Updike was twenty-two years old. Even now, more than half a century later and with his early promise more than fulfilled, it’s hard to read this account without hating him a little. Norman Mailer—whose debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, appeared when he was twenty-five—didn’t pull any punches in “Some Children of the Goddess,” an essay on his contemporaries that was published in Esquire in 1963: ‘[Updike’s] reputation has traveled in convoy up the Avenue of the Establishment, The New York Times Book Review, blowing sirens like a motorcycle caravan, the professional muse of The New Yorker sitting in the Cadillac, membership cards to the right Fellowships in his pocket.’ And Begley, his biographer, acknowledges the singular nature of his subject’s rise:

“It’s worth pausing here to marvel at the unrelieved smoothness of his professional path . . . . Among the other twentieth-century American writers who made a splash before their thirtieth birthday . . . none piled up accomplishments in as orderly a fashion as Updike, or with as little fuss. . . . This frictionless success has sometimes been held against him. His vast oeuvre materialized with suspiciously little visible effort. Where there’s no struggle, can there be real art? The Romantic notion of the tortured poet has left us with a mild prejudice against the idea of art produced in a calm, rational, workmanlike manner (as he put it, ‘on a healthy basis of regularity and avoidance of strain’), but that’s precisely how Updike got his start.

Read the entire article.

The Guardian‘s Claire Armitstead posted an article that asks the question, “Do celebrity book blurbs ‘blackmail’ readers?”

“This year’s flurry of fur and feathers was provoked by a tirade from Colin Thubron (pictured) on celebrity endorsements,” Armitstead writes. “Some blurbs, said the veteran travel writer, ‘almost blackmail’ readers into feeling that ‘you’re either intellectually or morally incompetent if you don’t love this book or you’ve failed if you haven’t understood it.’ Some people, he felt, ‘seem to earn their living . . . saying: ‘This is the most profound book of our generation.'”

It’s true. There are plenty of “quote whores” out there, and not just in the field of literature. How many times have film fans seen a blurb from someone like Pete Hammond over-praising a movie that’s mediocre at best? And as Armitstead points out, the practice of celebrity or star blurbing is hardly a new phenomenon. And when a star is born, there are plenty of knocks on the door for favor payback.

Armitstead cites novelist Nathan Filer as Exhibit A. Filer said that one critic didn’t even bother to read his debut novel, The Shock of the Fall, preferring instead to quote a blurb writer who was a better-known novelist. Joe Dunthorne called it “engaging, funny and inventive.” But as Filer pointed out, “I’ve known Joe Dunthorne for many years. I think he owed me a favor.” And six months after he won the Costa book of the year, he received 42 unsolicited proofs of soon-to-be-published novels asking HIM for a blurb.

Such is literary life.

“Filer’s post produced some hilarious comments about the pratfalls of indiscriminate blurbing. ‘Probably the nadir,’ wrote Chris Power, ‘is John Updike’s for ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: ‘ZZ Packer tells it like it izz.'”

Of course, anyone who’s read a number of Updike’s blurbs knows that he tended to blurb only those books he liked, and when he went for a pun it meant the occasion (or book) called for it.