UK authors and critics pick the best novels since Ulysses

First UK edition.

Ulysses turned 100 this year, and to mark the occasion, The Sunday Times (UK) asked a jury of authors and critics to pick “the finest novels published since [James] Joyce’s classic.” Though Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it’s Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960) that continues to make lists such as this.

Nine of The Times’ 14 jurists were women. “Between them they have read thousands of books, and their choices reflect this: the oldest book was published in 1924, the most recent in 2009. The list includes writers from Britain, Ireland, the US, Nigeria, India and South Africa, with subject matter just as diverse. You will find scalp-hunting outlaws, organ-donating clones and Wall Street traders.”

Of Updike’s novel, which the jury ranked #43, The Times wrote, “In high school Harry Angstrom was a basketball star. Now he’s a 26-year-old salesman, living in the suburbs with his wife, Janice, and son, Nelson. Bored and unsatisfied, he runs away and shacks up with a prostitute in his home town. The search for freedom is a classic American narrative, and here it’s told with aplomb, in charged, fierce prose.”

Read the full article.

John Updike had strong opinions about book design

Carol Devine Carson, a designer at Alfred A. Knopf, summarized what it was like designing a book cover for John Updike: “He was very hands on,” she told Eye on Design writer Rachel Berger. “You had to learn what he liked in order to get anything approved.” Carson and designer Chip Kidd said Updike’s “likes” were consistent, Berger wrote. “For body copy, Janson of course. For jackets, Updike favored Albertus, a craggy Depression-era display face with tapering serifs resembling letters carved in metal, centered and in all caps. He loved certain shades of blue. He preferred 18-point type. Original art, yes. Contemporary photography, no. ‘He didn’t want to see too much letter spacing or type used in any kind of bizarre way,’ recalled Carson. ‘It was very straightforward,'” whereas Kidd and Carson’s design tastes were varied.

Chip Kidd’s design with Updike’s sticky note requested changes.

Updike’s first ambition was to become an artist, and all of his dust jackets proudly list the year he spent at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford, England. Visitors to The John Updike Childhood Home can see numerous examples of his work.

What did Kidd, a Reading native who was a keynote speaker at the 3rd Biennial John Updike Society Conference, think of Updike’s design sensibilities? Consider the famous dust jacket for Rabbit, Run, which Updike designed. “What about that cover suggests middle class suburbia?” Kidd wondered. “Unless I’m missing something, conceptually it doesn’t mean anything”—those patterned thin yellow, green and blue stripes with a large circle in the center.

“I would call Updike’s design taste very conservative,” Kidd told Berger, contrasting it with his own aesthetic, which was “just completely all over the place.” Berger wrote that Kidd and Updike occasionally “butted heads,” with one letter to editor Judith Jones “requesting ‘no Kiddian theatrics, please’ for an upcoming title.”

Read the full article

New-old review of Updike’s Roger’s Version appears

The blog recently posted an unsigned, undated “Book Review: John Updike’s Version of Roger.”

“This book is less an emotional exercise than an intellectual gambit, with the provability of the Almighty as its leitmotif. While to prove the existence of the Judeo-Christian God is certainly not a new sport, Updike chooses to play by significantly different rules than those that constrain the likes of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Leibniz, Hume, Kant” and instead “launches his argumentative and theological rays against the backdrop of modern scientific thought and method, evoking evolution, the Big Bang, and the binary oddball of today’s supercomputers. Planck and Heisenberg collide with Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, resulting in an electrical charge that permeates Updike’s always literate and frequently erudite pages,” the author writes.

Read the full review

Julian Barnes echoes Updike’s love of books, with greater optimism

From a recently published piece by Julian Barnes on “Books, Books, Books” that was a version of a speech delivered at Christie’s, London “to mark First Editions, Second Thoughts, an auction of annotated first edition books and works of art from internationally renowned contemporary artists and authors, in support of English PEN”:

“I have been a book reader, a book buyer, a book sniffer, a book collector and, in recent times, a regretful book discarder,” said Barnes, who also quoted American Anglophile essayist Logan Pearsal Smith: “Some people say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” Barnes added, “This is funny and wry, but in my view entirely wrong. Reading isn’t something you do when you’re not living, or when life has let you down, or you are incapacitated in some way. Nor is reading just a part of living. Reading is living, and only reading fully explains what this thing called life is.”

Recalling Updike, Barnes asked, “And what of the Future of the Book, that question much posed in recent times. The physical book, that is. John Updike, in a late poem, ‘The Author Observes his Birthday, 2005’wrote lovingly of his early years of being a writer and of seeing ‘my halt words strut in type’. He goes on:

“[…] And then to have my spines
line up upon the shelf, one more each year,
however out of kilter ran my life!

“I too remember that feeling, though in my case it was more like a book every two years. In the same poem, Updike writes with melancholy – indeed pessimism – of the future of the printed book:

“A life poured into words – apparent waste
intended to preserve the thing consumed.
For who, in that unthinkable future
when I am dead, will read? The printed page
was just a half-millennium’s brief wonder.

“I am much less pessimistic. Book-buying, as we saw, went up during lockdown. The appetite for the physical book appears undiminished, perhaps even increasing. The physical book is, as someone else might put it, the perfect piece of delivery equipment for what it contains – words, pleasure, truth. But I’m sure I don’t have to convince any of you of that.”

Lethbridge Herald writer sees mixed messages in Updike’s The Coup

In the Lethbridge Herald [Canada], Trevor Busch wrote, “Today’s Africa is finally a reawakening giant” that “seems increasingly ready to join a family of nations as developed and free societies.

“In the early 1970s, things were much different. Africa was a wild west of cowboy diplomacy as both the Soviet Bloc and the United States faced off in numerous African backwaters over ideological differences, with both sides arming their own ideologicallly-friendly regimes in a deadly game of Cold War cat and mouse.

“Unfortunately freedom—no matter what side of the political spectrum Africans found themselves under these various regimes—was an unintended casualty of proxy warfare.

“American novelist John Updike stepped into this maelstrom with The Coup (1978). Set in a fictional sub-Saharan African nation known as Kush during the early 1970s, it follows the struggles of dictator Col. Ellellou in attempting to prevent a pro-Western coup from sweeping him from power and instituting a style of government and economy he most hates.”

Busch added, “While The Coup closely follows events in Africa involving Col. Ellellou and his failing regime, it also serves as a scathing rebuke of American Cold War foreign policy in Africa, and is illustrative of the contradictions and hypocrisy that were inherent in both superpowers propping up tin-pot dictators in the name of freedom. . . . Through the hybrid character of Ellellou, Updike takes the reader on a journey that exposes the best and worst of 20th century Africa as well as America.”

“Although Ellellou is nothing if not a fascinating character . . . it tends to beg the question how he attained power in the first place, something which Updike mostly side-steps in the novel.

“Other characters in The Coup are sometimes almost laughingly one-sided, especially women, who serve almost no purpose for Ellellou other than sexual concubines for his satisfaction. . . . While Updike’s The Coup is a fascinating exploration of how late 20th century Americans viewed their nation’s own foreign policy choices through the viewpoint of a hostile but perceptive outsider, the novel falls entirely short of greatness.

“The reader is left wondering if The Coup is meant to be an abstract polemic or a realistic tale of a violent change of government in a poor African nation.”

Or perhaps a third possibility that seems to resonate with American readers: That it’s a comic novel, a satire of American over-consumption and arrogance, as well as a satire of the African dictators caught in the middle of all these Cold War shenanigans?

NPR story on climate change quotes Updike

Scott Simon on NPR’s Simon Says today opined that “Blistering summers are the future,” and backs that up with equally frightening claims from the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization: “there is more lethal heat in our future because of climate change caused by our species on this planet. Even with advances in wind, solar and other alternative energy sources, and international pledges and accords, the world still derives about 80% of its energy from fossil fuels, like oil, gas and coal, which release the carbon dioxide that’s warmed the climate to the current temperatures of this scalding summer.”

“The WMO’s chief, Petteri Taalas, said this week, ‘In the future these kinds of heatwaves are going to be normal.’

“The most alarming word in his forecast might be: ‘normal.’

“I’m of a generation that thought of summer as a sunny time for children. I think of long days spent outdoors without worry, playing games or just meandering. John Updike wrote in his poem, ‘June’:

The sun is rich
And gladly pays
In golden hours,
Silver days,
And long green weeks
That never end.
School’s out. The time
Is ours to spend.
There’s Little League,
Hopscotch, the creek,
And, after supper,
The live-long light
Is like a dream…

“But now that bright, ‘live-long light’ of which Updike wrote, might look menacing in a summer like this.

“In blistering weeks such as we see this year, and may for years to come, you wonder if our failures to care for the planet given to us will make our children look forward to summer, or dread another season of heat.”

Historic Ipswich marks the Updike years

Shillington, Pa. isn’t the only community that’s able to claim John Updike as a “native son.” Ipswich, Mass. also deserves a share of the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and Gordon Harris of explains why:

The Updikes lived in the Ipswich area for 17 years in three different houses, where John and Mary were active in community affairs and Updike was working in Ipswich when Couples put him on the cover of Time magazine and in the international spotlight.

“Like Ipswich, Tarbox [the town named in Couples] was a small coastal town founded in 1634. Its streets were lined with 17th century saltboxes, the downtown street had three banks and a Woolworths.”

Harris notes that Updike, at the age of 32, became the youngest person ever elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Below, far right, Updike participated in the Ipswich 17th Century Day pageant.

Reviewer cites Dickens and Updike for cheerfulness

In his review of Cheerfulness: A Literary and Cultural History by Timothy Hampton, The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw adds a few cheerful-related references that aren’t mentioned in the book . . . but, one gathers, should have been.

One such reference is the BBC wartime radio comedy It’s That Man Again—or ITMA—which “kept British peckers up during the blitz,” a “morale-boosting cavalcade of wacky characters, cheeky catchphrases and proto-Goon sound effects, in which depressed charlady Mona Lott, played by Joan Harben, would drone the latest awful thing that had happened to her and then hit you with the devastatingly deadpan punchline: ‘It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going.'”

Bradshaw writes, “Like Michel Foucault discussing the history of sexuality, Hampton proposes a history of cheerfulness that is not about the sunny character trait of the individual, which it’s possible to find enviable or annoying, but the unexamined social and cultural practice. It is a learned discipline, to be taken perfectly seriously as something that promotes cohesiveness and personal humility. He finds Friedrich Nietzsche to be a key figure in the history of modern cheerfulness. While not obviously Mr Cheerful, the philosopher was someone who rejected the idea of it as mere placid wellbeing” and Hampton “finds in Nietzsche’s ideas an important link with gaiety as a life-force, an apparently trivial but in fact vital component of what drives us to create and to achieve, and also to live fully and responsibly in maintaining the happiness of others.”

“Cheerfulness is a perennially uncool value,” Bradshaw writes, “something to be satirised as a symptom of sinister unexpressed anger. And yet in the real world it is part of that unassuming habit of politeness without which social interaction is impossible. Cheerfulness is never saying die, a key component of Dickens and also, I would say, (though he isn’t mentioned here) John Updike.”

Participants sought for Updike panel at ALA-Santa Fe symposium

Drury Plaza Hotel, Santa Fe

The John Updike Society will hold their 7th biennial conference in Tucson, Ariz. in the fall of 2023, but there’s an opportunity for some scholars to go to a different part of the American Southwest a year earlier.

After a two-year hiatus, the ALA will host a fall symposium in Santa Fe, N.M. in October 2022 on “The Historical Imagination in American Literature,” with Deborah Clarke (Arizona State University) serving as keynote speaker.

The Updike Society has been invited to sponsor a session, and a natural topic for papers or a discussion-based panel would seem to be “The Backdrop of History and Imagined Significance in John Updike’s Fiction,” which allows presenters to explore some of the many historical references in the novels and short stories and explicate their connections to Updike’s themes and narrative action.

The symposium will take place October 27-29 at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Santa Fe. The conference fee is $175, and rooms are $135 per night. Santa Fe has a population of 87,505 but is part of the metropolitan area of Albuquerque/Santa Fe/Las Vegas, which has a population of 1.2 million. Santa Fe is known for the arts and for its connections to indigenous people.

As for the topic, conference director Olivia Carr Edenfield offers these thoughts-as-prompts:

Hotel lobby

“The Historical Imagination in American Literature:  What does it mean to envision and embody history in American writing?  How does a “usable past” shape our fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction? What philosophical, psychological, and political factors shape how writers look at a moment of time?  How do regional differences shape our historical perspectives? How do race, class, and gender influence the perception and presentation of historical realities? How important is the historical novel to our culture? How do the alternate histories of speculative fiction transform our understanding of time? 

Three papers and a moderator are needed for a traditional panel; five participants and a moderator make up a discussion-based roundtable. The direction the Society takes will be shaped by the response.

Participation is not limited to members of the Updike Society. Send proposals and expressions of interest to James Plath,

Artisan Market, Palace of the Governors, downtown Santa Fe

Rabbit, Run makes another must-read list

Is Rabbit, Run still relevant today? The people at think so. In fact, they included Updike’s 1960 novel on a list of “Five books you should read this year.”

Recommended are Cormac McCarthy’s The Way, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Updike’s first Rabbit Angstrom novel.

“Only three authors have won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and one was John Updike. Rabbit, Run it is the first in a four-book series spanning Updike’s career. In terms of sheer skill, Updike is the ultimate master of the late 20th century. His sentences are amazingly brilliant and his command of the language is next to none.”

Actually, Updike was one of only four writers to win multiple Pulitzer Prizes in Fiction. The others were Booth Tarkington, William Faulkner, and, more recently, Colson Whitehead.

But the point is, like the Energizer Bunny, Rabbit keeps running . . . even well into the 21st century.