In 2012, Time magazine published a list feature by Nick Carbone on the “Top 10 Racy Novels.” Both Roth and Updike made the list—Roth with Portnoy’s Complaint, and Updike with Couples. Christopher Matthews wrote the entry for Updike’s 1968 novel:
John Updike became a literary superstar by documenting the collapse of the idyllic American fifties and the sexual taboos that, in part, defined it. He gained a reputation for sexual explicitness with such novels as 1960’s Rabbit Run, and his 1968 novel Couples was a doubling down on that approach. Its original dust jacket featured William Blake’s watercolor drawing of a nude Adam and Eve, hinting at the carnality and betrayal that lay between the covers. The novel itself features Updike’s famously clinical description of sex acts, and, more importantly, an incisive examination of late-sixties, upper-middle class American society. An increasingly oversexed society demanded this kind of frankness, and Updike was up to the task. As Wilfred Sheed wrote in a New York Times review in 1968, “Rumor has it that Couples is a dirty book. But although Updike does call all the parts and attachments by name, so does the Encyclopedia Britannica. And if this is a dirty book, I don’t see how sex can be written about at all.”
Which begs the question: Now that it’s 2021, is Couples still a “racy novel”?