Singer-songwriter pens, performs song about Updike

Gary Louris, a singer-songwriter and founding member of the Minneapolis-based band The Jayhawks, has written a song titled “Mr. Updike,” his ode to the author.

“Mr. Updike” is one of the singles on a solo album that was released today, June 4 on Sham/Thirty Tigers.

You can see Louris perform “Mr. Updike” in a music video on YouTube. In addition, here’s a link to Jump for Joy—that new album written, performed, recorded, and produced entirely by Louris, who says he’s currently rereading Rabbit Redux.


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Author weighs Updike, Roth careers

Writing for Taki’s Magazine, Steve Sailer considered the literary output of John Updike and Philip Roth, who were born almost exactly one year apart and were equally prolific throughout their extended writing careers.

“Both published acclaimed works of fiction in their 20s: Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, which satirized postwar Jewish affluence, and Updike’s Rabbit, Run, in which a former high school jock with a two-digit IQ (but, for unexplained reasons, the supreme perceptive consciousness of John Updike) repeatedly makes bad decisions that bring trouble for everybody around him. Yet, Rabbit keeps turning out okay because, hey, America is more of a comedy than a tragedy,” Sailer writes.

“In the early 1970s, Roth published some lousy books, such as his strident Richard Nixon parody Our Gang, while Updike pulled ahead in repute.”

Sailer decides that the two writers were close to equal early in their careers, with Updike the superior writer in mid-career and Roth the better late-career writer. And he has the charts to illustrate those assertions. Here’s the link.

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Updike’s first New York Times mention came in a parenting article

Photo:  Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

Here’s a fascinating bit of trivia:  John Updike—reviewed and interviewed at least as much and probably more than any other writer—first appeared in The New York Times not in connection with his writing, but rather his parenting.

Way back on March 2, 1958, Dorothy Barclay compiled an article on “The Magic World of Words” that appeared in The Times.

The public was reminded of this by a recent article, “John Updike on Parenting, Agatha Christie in the Gossip Pages: First Mentions of Famous Authors in The Times.”

“Not long before his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, was published, Updike—already an acclaimed short-story writer—was featured in a parenting article, ‘The Magic World of Words,’ which discussed the best ways to spark a child’s love for language. Updike, the father of toddlers, told the paper in 1958, ‘When children are picking up words with rapidity, between 2 and 3, say, tell them the true word for something even if it is fairly abstruse and long. A long correct word is exciting for a child. Makes them laugh; my daughter never says “rhinoceros” without laughing.’”

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Review of witch novel prompts another Updike comparison

In Wyatt Mason‘s June 4 Wall Street Journal review of Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch, the reviewer praised author Rivka Galchen by comparing her novel to what he feels are less successful witch-driven narratives:

“High-art witch stories have tended to fare less well, the metaphorical potential of the material turning art into a civics class. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible is the worst of these, so clearly an allegory for Wrongful Persecution by the Powerful. It is almost tied for badness with John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, a satire of male power (creep undone by vengeful coven) that these days is hard not to read as a male fantasy about a four-way with a man in the middle.”

If you’re going to be criticized, there’s worse company to be in than Arthur Miller’s.

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Would Couples make Time’s Top 10 Racy Novels list today?

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”?

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Eleanor Wachtel interview with Updike remains one of the best

John Updike supersleuth Dave Lull dug up another interview for us to add to our resource page of Updike interviews and readings online, but it’s good enough to call people’s attention to on the blog. Eleanor Wachtel did a very fine interview with Updike in Toronto, 1996, for an episode of her CBC Radio One series Writers & Company. He covers old ground but in new ways.

Here’s the link.


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Son of a Dentist! An old interview with John Updike surfaces

John Updike famously hated giving interviews, but when his Ipswich dentist had his drill in his mouth and asked, “My son would like to interview you for his school paper. Would that be okay?” it’s tough to say no. Impossible, even.

Bob Waite, whose interview—“Column: Updike interview proved drill mightier than the sword (or pen)”—appeared in yesterday’s Ipswich News—recalled that 1965 interview and shared Q&A excerpts he found in a box. Among the questions:

What do you consider your major work up to this time?  That is a very difficult question. Of the four novels I have written, each was the best I could do at the time. If I had to pick one it would probably be The Centaur. Of my short stories, my next book, Olinger which will come out next year, is my best.

I have read some of your books and have noticed a lack of endings. Do you have a special reason for using this style?  I do not believe in artificial endings. A conventional ending doesn’t fit real life. (But) all of my books are written towards an ending I have in mind. I don’t just chop the end off when I get tired.

Do you find you often unknowingly use actual persons and occurrences in your writing?  No. If I do it, I do it knowingly. In general, I try not to translate real things into fiction. But I find it almost unavoidable to refrain from mixing fact with fiction.

A few unkind things were said about your last book, Of the Farm. What is your general opinion of critics?  I don’t have a general opinion of critics. It all depends on the critic. Being a critic is a very difficult thing to do well. I think there’s a lot of propaganda going on about books. If a book cannot defend itself, then it cannot be defended.

Do you have any favorite authors or persons who have influenced your writing?  Many, beginning with my parents and my wife. As for authors, I would have to say James Thurber, Henry Green, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway all influenced me.

Read the whole interview.


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Times writer argues on behalf of great male literary figures

In a piece that appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Times [London], Claire Lowdon asked the question, “Should we stop reading the work of Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth?”

Then she provided an answer: “Let’s judge the great male literary figures on merit, not by their sexual deeds.” But she did not come to that decision without a struggle.

“Never do I feel more trapped inside my gender than when I’m thinking about Philip Roth, John Updike and Saul Bellow. But not for the reasons you might think,” Lowdon wrote.

“These novelists dominated the American literary scene for 50 years. Boldly, shamelessly, their work mined their lives and those of the people they knew. Over the past decade important biographies of all three have appeared, flooding those lives with the cold, hard light of non-fiction. The promiscuity and the adultery we already knew about. But the scale of it! Sometimes Bellow had four women on the go at once. Or how about Updike, who pleasured his mistress through her ski trousers in the back seat of the car his unwitting wife was driving? And Roth, whose later work seems so noble, so serious—why there he is, caught red-handed in Blake Bailey’s new biography, using prostitutes and sleeping with his students!”

Lowdon wrote that ironically “we perform a piece of sexist reduction when all we care about is what Roth [and Updike and the others] did in bed. And although, increasingly, it’s considered reactionary to say, ‘Hold on, things were a bit different back then,’ it’s true: they were. The way we think about sex and power has shifted radically in the past half-century.”

She continued, “Roth, Updike and Bellow are our fathers in the sense that we have inherited the world in which they lived and wrote. Perhaps we simply can’t bear to discover that these once-revered figures are less than perfect. An uncomfortable truth: a man who is capable of great insights into the human condition can desire in his dotage to f*** a much younger woman. Are we afraid of what these men have to tell us about sex—that it is full of inconvenient, transgressive, inappropriate feelings?”

Lowdon concluded, “The world is messy, full of unwanted erections and coercion and pornography. Good novelists try to capture that mess on paper. Which is in itself a moral act—to look clearly and unflinchingly at what is.”

Read the full essay.


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In Memoriam: James Yerkes

Three and a half years ago The John Updike Society lost contact with James Yerkes, well known to Updike scholars as the editor-publisher of The Centaurian newsletter. Now we are saddened to report that we have learned from Dave Lull, who served as Yerkes’ assistant for many years, that Yerkes passed away.

Lull managed to track down Yerkes’ daughter, Janet Winslow, who responded in an email, “I’m sorry to tell you that my father died in November 2018. My father fell and broke his pelvis on 10/31/17, and we moved him and my mother to assisted living in Indianapolis one month later. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he had a form of Parkinson’s that impacted both his physical and cognitive ability fairly quickly and significantly during his last year.”

For many years before the society was formed, The Centaurian served to unite academics and writers who were interested in the life, works, and legacy of John Updike. For his important and groundbreaking service to Updike studies, Yerkes was honored in 2010 as the first recipient of The John Updike Society’s Distinguished Service Award (pictured above). Due to his inability to travel, the award was presented to him on the society’s behalf by Rich Boulet, then director of the Blue Hill Public Library, a literary center in Maine near Yerkes’ home.

“I remember when Dad received this–he was so appreciative,” Winslow said. “My father’s Updike work was incredibly important and meaningful to him and provided a wonderful ‘place’ to put his energy and intellect in the years following retirement.”

Yerkes, Professor of Religion and Philosophy Emeritus and former provost of Moravian College, edited the important collection of essays on John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace, published by Eerdmans in December 1999. We will miss him.

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Maverick Philosopher on Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter

This time of year John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” is often reprinted and just as often pondered.

The most recent to tackle the poem is the Maverick Philosopher, who is listed among The Times of London’s 100 Best Blogs.

Bill Vallicella (aka Maverick Philosopher) writes, “Given what we know from yesterday’s Updike entry, the suspicion obtrudes that, while Updike clearly understands the Resurrection as orthodoxy understands it, his interest in it is merely aesthetic in Kierkegaard’s sense, and not ethical in the Dane’s sense, which suspicion comports well with the charge that Updike radically divorced Christian theology from Christian ethics.

“Or perhaps, as a Protestant, Updike thinks that since God in Christ did all the work of atonement, he needn’t do anything such as reform his life and struggle and strive for metanoia but can freely enjoy himself in the arms and partake of the charms of other men’s wives.  Am I being fair?”

Is he?

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