Some nice presents for Updike’s birthday

Today John Hoyer Updike would have marked his 86th birthday, and in recent days several articles have surfaced that would have pleased him enough to seem like thoughtful presents.

Yesterday, we heard from a former fact-checker for The New Yorker, where Updike enjoyed working as “Talk of the Town” reporter. In “These Days I Miss John Updike, a Remote and Noble Male Mentor,”written for The New York Times, Caitlin Shetterfly writes about her “literary hero”  whose Maples stories she had addressed in her college thesis. She talks about Updike’s kind mentoring and a letter she received from him that she still keeps by her desk. And she talks, by contrast, about another man at The New Yorker, a married man from whom she received  “inappropriate attentions” and who one day “leaned in, suddenly, and kissed” her. The difference was striking.

She writes, “I’ll be the first to admit that the themes of adultery and overt and detailed sexuality in Updike’s stories sometimes made me slightly queasy. But there was nothing in them that ever smacked of the predatory; on the contrary, it was his fastidious honesty, his euphoric interest in sexuality, that rattled and embarrassed me.” Updike seemed a gentleman to her, both in his fiction and his personal life.

A day earlier, in “Why time isn’t up for Updike,” Diana Evans, writing for the Financial Times, noted that while the writer’s stock has slumped in the #MeToo era, she still finds inspiration in Updike’s acute depictions of domestic life. She also drew a distinction between Updike’s treatment of sexuality in his fiction and the kind of one-sided, predatory sexuality that women are saying “Times Up” to.

Two women in two days, writing about Updike’s fictional male-female sexuality, have concluded essentially the same thing:  that there was mutual interest and consent, and that Updike was a master at describing the complicated and curious force that pulls people toward each other’s flesh.

If there was a more thoughtful gift to be given in this age of justifiable women’s outrage, we’re not sure what it would be.

Happy 86th.

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