Articles by johnupdikesociety

You are currently browsing johnupdikesociety’s articles.

With their website under construction, Clouds Hill Books of Village Station, N.Y. has emailed their John Updike – Fall 2017 List to people on their mailing list. We post it here as a courtesy to those who collect Updike.

Since we notice that many of the items come from the collection of one of The John Updike Society members, we wanted to remind everyone that the Society has been actively seeking DONATIONS of archival and Updike-related materials. Selling your collection puts items in the hands of individual collectors and deprives the public; donating your collection (or even just some of the more significant or appropriate items) to The John Updike Society for The John Updike Childhood Home makes those items available to researchers and also rotational display at the house, so that future generations can appreciate and benefit from the items you’ve collected. An additional option is to donate items to the archive at Alvernia University that the society began and subsequently donated to Alvernia before the childhood home was purchased and turned into a museum and literary center.

To make arrangements to donate to The John Updike Society, contact James Plath,

To make arrangements to donate to The John Updike Collections of the Alvernia University Archives and Special Collections, contact Sharon Neal,

Both organizations are 501 c 3 tax-exempt non-profits, and your donations to either of them are 100 percent tax deductible.

You spent your life collecting Updike; keep your life entwined with Updike by donating your collection so that your name can be forever linked to Updike and the items you donated.

The John Updike Society will hold its 5th biennial conference in Belgrade, Serbia the first week of June 2018, and all are welcome to attend (registration information). The conference celebrates Updike abroad, Updike in translation, and the 50th anniversary of the publication of Couples. This interview on “Where the Couples Are Today” covers all three of those bases:  it was conducted in Belgrade, it’s newly translated, and it focuses on Couples.

Updike gave the interview to the daily Politika while he was in Belgrade in October 1978, and it was published on the 19th. The interview was translated recently by Jasna Todorovic, a doctoral student of John Updike Society board member Biljana Dojcinovic. Below are the pages as they were published. Here is the translation: WHERE THE COUPLES ARE TODAY

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.


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.

« Older entries