Is John Updike a ‘Malfunctioning Sex Robot’?

That’s the charge Patricia Lockwood levels after she’s charged with reading and reviewing Novels, 1959-65: The Poorhouse Fair; Rabbit, Run; The Centaur; Of the Farm, by John Updike for the London Review of Books. And she skewers Updike with the kind of zest the likes of which haven’t been seen since David Foster Wallace (quoted here) used to pillory Updike (“a penis with a thesaurus”) and other “Great White Male Narcissists.” It’s almost as if she’s hoping one of her own derogatory turns-of-phrase will be likewise immortalized.

See “Malfunctioning Sex Robot” for an entertaining, fascinating, mostly negative but partly positive take on Updike from someone who approaches the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner as a dog walker stoops with a plastic bag to complete her civic obligation.

She confesses her bias openly, in the first paragraph:  “I was hired as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.” She writes, “In a 1997 review for the New York Observer, the recently kinged David Foster Wallace diagnosed how far Updike had fallen in the esteem of a younger generation. ‘Penis with a thesaurus’ is the phrase that lives on. . . . Today, he has fallen even further, still, in the pantheon but marked by an embarrassed asterisk: DIED OF PUSSY-HOUNDING. No one can seem to agree on his surviving merits. He wrote like an angel, the consensus goes, except when he was writing like a malfunctioning sex robot attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter. Offensive criticism of him is often reductive, while defensive criticism has a strong flavour of people-are-being-mean-to-my-dad. There’s so much of him, spread over so much time, that perhaps everyone has read a different John Updike. . . . The more I read of him the more there was, like a fable.”

“When he is in flight you are glad to be alive. When he comes down wrong—which is often—you feel the sickening turn of an ankle, a real nausea. All the flaws that will become fatal later are present in the beginning. He has a three-panel cartoonist’s sense of plot. The dialogue is a weakness: in terms of pitch, it’s half a step sharp, too nervily and jumpily tuned to the tics and italics and slang of the era. And yes, there are his women. Janice is a grotesquerie with a watery drink in one hand and a face full of television static; her emotional needs are presented as a gaping, hungry and above all unseemly hole, surrounded by well-described hair. He paints and paints them but the proportions are wrong. He is like a God who spends four hours on the shading on Eve’s upper lip, forgets to give her a clitoris, and then decides to rest on Tuesday. In the scene where Janice drunkenly drowns the baby, it wasn’t the character I felt pity for but Updike, fumbling so clumsily to get inside her that in the end it’s his hands that get slippery, drop the baby.”

Patricia Lockwood is a poet whose memoir, Priestdaddy, was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2017 by The New York Times. Her full review—in the London Review of Books Vol. 41 No. 19, 10 October 2019, the Anniversary Issue: Part One—isn’t just a hatchet job. It’s a thorough and thoughtful reconsideration of Updike then through the eyes of a woman now, and that’s fascinating.  The #metoo movement has claimed a number of casualties, most of them deserved. But it has to leave today’s male writers wondering if any of them can ever be as completely honest as Updike was about  sex and relations with women, or if that ship has sailed . . . and long ago sunk.



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Interview with Michael Updike spotlights Plowville gravestone

If you haven’t been to Plow Church cemetery to see John Updike’s gravestone carved by son Michael, there’s a large photo of it accompanying a Northshore Magazine story about how Updike’s sculptor son changed his artistic course after that gravestone.

In “Artist Michael Updike Creates Works of Art in Stone,” Robert G. Pushkar (who also took the photos) writes, “After the death of his father, writer John Updike, in 2009, Michael experienced a tectonic shift in his artistic awareness. He set out to commemorate his father’s life in a meaningful and also aesthetically unique way. But first he had to learn the intricacies of gravestone art. Already he had experience carving in granite and marble, but slate required another skill set. He explains, ‘You have to carve in a totally different way.'”

Michael told Pushkar, “In my art I do make death heads and winged skulls as a nod and recognition to the early folk artists of New England . . . . I can tell a carver’s style and feel. We won the American Revolution but looked back toward the neoclassical influence in creating gravestones, instead of the pagan skulls and wings with so much personality. Now you have urns and weeping willows, which are stagnant.”

Since the one he carved for his father, Michael has done a number of gravestones.

“It’s very exciting to me. . . . It takes me to a wide-range gamut of emotion, because I can suddenly be working with a parent who lost a child, or I can be working with very ironic people who want to do their own gravestone before they die. A lot of jokes and humor could be built into it. . . . The journey of getting the stone is what helps them recover and heal. . . . Not completely, but to a certain level where they can move on. There’s a little bit of being a psychoanalyst, a little bit of being a pastor or minister, or just sometimes being a friend realizing their vision.”

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Updike Society well represented at New Orleans short story conference

In September, 2019, four members of The John Updike Society presented papers at a New Orleans symposium sponsored by the Society for the Study of the American Short Story and the American Literature Association.

Robert Luscher, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, formed the panel, which also included Professor Laurence W. Mazzeno, President Emeritus of Alvernia University, Reading, PA; Takashi Nakatani, Associate Professor of English, American Literature, and Literary Criticism of Yokohama City University, Japan; and Dr. Sue Norton, Lecturer of English at Technological University Dublin.

Their papers focused on John Updike’s “Divorcing,” selections from My Father’s Tears and Other Stories, selections from The Olinger Stories, and “Separating.”  The session was chaired by Associate Professor of English Leslie Petty of Rhodes College, Memphis, Tennessee.

John Updike’s Short Fiction
Chair: Leslie Petty, Rhodes College
1.  “Writing and Well Being: Story as Salve in the Work of Two Updikes,” Susan Norton, Technological University, Dublin
2.  “Outside the Grand Narrative: The Personal in John Updike’s Olinger Stories,”  Takashi Nakatani, Okohama City University
3.  “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories as (Literary) Last Will and Testament,” Laurence W. Mazzeno, Alvernia University
4.  “John Updike’s ‘Divorcing: A Fragment’ and the Question of Genre: Shoring Stories against the Ruins in Too Far to Go,” Robert M. Luscher, University of Nebraska at Kearney

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Rabbit finds his way into a Sam Riviere poem

In the U.K., Penguin’s Modern Poets Five: Occasional Wild Partiesfeaturing poems by Sam Riviere, Frederick Seidel, and Kathryn Maris—includes the poem “Year of the Rabbit,” by Riviere. The poem is also available to view online through, and so we include the full text here:

Year of the Rabbit

there is no purer form of advertising
than writing a poem
that’s what the monk told me
if I were a conceptual artist
I would make high-budget trailers
of john updike novels but no actual movie
the scene where angstrom drives towards
the end of his life down a street in the suburbs
lined with a type of tree he’s never bothered
to identify and laden with white blossoms
reflecting slickly in the windscreen
I would fade in the music
as the old song was fading out
keeping the backing vocals at the same distance
kind of balancing the silence
the word RABBIT appears in 10 foot trebuchet

Sam Riviere


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Lorrie Moore to deliver keynote at 2020 John Updike Conference

Writer Lorrie Moore will travel to Shillington-Reading to deliver the keynote talk at the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University. The conference will take place the first week in October 2020, which coincides with the October 3 grand opening and dedication of The John Updike Childhood Home.

Like Updike, Moore received the prestigious Rea Award for the Short Story, given annually to a living American writer who has made significant contributions to the genre. And like Updike, Moore won the O. Henry Award for a short story that was first published in The New Yorker. Updike and Moore were both admirers of each other’s work, and both authors worked in multiple genres—novels, short stories, non-fiction, children’s books, essays, and criticism.

“Her review of The Early Stories is one of my favorite takes on Updike,” JUS board member Matthew Shipe said. That review was reprinted in Moore’s collection of essays and reviews, See What Can Be Done (Knopf, 2018). Over the years Moore has published five collections of short stories (Self-Help, 1985; Like Life, 1990; Birds of America, 1998; The Collected Stories, 2008; and Bark, 2014) as well as three novels (Anagrams, 1986; Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, 1994; and A Gate at the Stairs, 2009); a children’s book (The Forgotten Helper, 1987), and that aforementioned collection of essays.

Birds of America won The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and brought her wide acclaim, with Alison Lurie remarking that Moore is “the nearest thing we have to Checkhov.” If that sounds heady, readers who want to explore the finer points of Moore’s work need look no further than Understanding Lorrie Moore, published in the respected major author series by the University of South Carolina Press and written by Alison Kelly, who notes, “Moore’s adroit pen portraits of places and people reflect her overarching artistic purpose, which she has described as ‘trying to register the way we, here in America, live.’ . . . Moore anatomizes American society as revealingly in her way as do writers such as John Updike or Tom Wolfe . . . .”

Updike had included Moore’s New Yorker story “You’re Ugly, Too” in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which he edited. Moore is currently the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

More information about the conference and conference registration will be forthcoming.

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Baby Boomer Report Card references Updike

In his op-ed piece published in the Friday, August 9, 2019 New York Times (A23), David Brooks grades the Baby Boomer generation on Politics (C-), Social Movements (A), Pop Culture (A), High Culture (C-), Technology and Innovation (A-), Lifestyle (A), Manners and Morals (C), and Overall Grade (B).

In giving boomers a C- for High Culture, Brooks writes, “The boomers entered college just as universities were expanding and becoming more specialized and professionalized. This produced the most educated generation up to that time, but the specialization and ghettoization of intellectual and artistic life took its toll on the nation’s culture.

“It’s not that people aren’t producing good work, but its influence tends to be confined to the academy or specialized subcultures. Art, classical music and novels have lost cultural influence. Boomer writers do not play the same roles as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Maya Angelou, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Larkin, John Updike, and Toni Morrison. Many of the most influential living philosophers are pre-boomer—like Amartya Sen, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre.”

Brooks concludes, “As a generation, boomers have excelled at the material things that make life pleasant, convenient, long and fun. They have struggled in the realms that other civilizations would have considered more profound: governance, philosophy, art and public morality.”

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Golfer’s Journal features a personal consideration of Updike and golf

A subscription is required, but if you’re high on golf and John Updike, as Matt Chominski is, you can plunk down the cash and read Chominski’s personal essay “Peculiar Bliss: Navigating family, marriage and golf with John Updike” that appears in the print-only Golfer’s Journal No. 9. Also in the issue is “The Bard’s Butter Cut: A Meeting and a match with Billy Collins, America’s rock-star poet.”

Of his Updike essay, Chominski wrote The John Updike Society in an email, “I actually start the piece referencing a lost Dante and his guide Virgil, and then place myself in the role of the pilgrim with Updike as my guide. The essay then dips in and out of his work from Golf Dreams, following the tripartite structure of the Divine Comedy. As the essay ends with the joys of a golfing life, it is fittingly titled ‘Peculiar Bliss,’ a phrase taken from Updike.”

Here’s the link to subscribe or purchase the current issue.

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Announcing a Call for Papers for the 6th John Updike Society Conference

The John Updike Society is now accepting proposals for papers to be presented at the Sixth Biennial John Updike Society Conference at Alvernia University, Reading, Pennsylvania, in fall 2020. The conference will coincide with the October 3 grand opening and October 3 dedication of the newly restored John Updike Childhood Home in Shillington, Pennsylvania, which the Society purchased in 2012 and has turned into a museum. Attendees will also be able to register for group side trips to Updike sites in Berks County and/or a day trip to Philadelphia.

We welcome one-page proposals for 15-20 minute papers on all aspects of Updike’s life and work, but especially seek proposals on:

—Works dealing with Updike’s childhood as described in his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including Midpoint, Pigeon Feathers, Self-Consciousness, The Centaur, and Olinger Stories.

—Updike works celebrating a milestone anniversary in 2020: Rabbit, Run (60th), Bech: A Book (50th), Rabbit at Rest (30th), and Gertrude and Claudius (20th).

Toward the End of Time, since 2020 is the year in which the novel is set.

We will also entertain proposals for panel discussions focused on individual works, groups of works, or themes in Updike’s fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Scholars who have recently published a book or are in the process of writing a book on Updike are encouraged to submit proposals for panel discussions.

Send proposal and a brief one- or two-paragraph bio to:  Program director Larry Mazzeno:

Successful proposals will be acknowledged within two weeks of receipt. To present a paper or moderate a panel at the conference, participants must be members of The John Updike Society and register for the conference. For membership information, see the Society’s website at Those who have papers accepted can join when they register for the conference. Registration information and further conference information will be forthcoming.

The very first John Updike Society conference was hosted by Alvernia University in 2010 (Ann Beattie, Lincoln Perry keynotes), with the second conference held at Suffolk University in Boston (Joyce Carol Oates, keynote), the third at Alvernia again (Adam Begley, Chip Kidd keynotes), the fourth at the University of South Carolina (Garrison Keillor keynote), and the fifth at the University of Belgrade in Serbia (Ian McEwan keynote). All are welcome to attend, whether presenting papers or not, as the John Updike Society is a gregarious blend of scholars, teachers, aficionados, Updike family and friends, and the kind of “just plain readers” that Updike so appreciated.


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Updike’s booksigning generosity recalled

Writer-artist-blogger Tim Lemire just published “Yours, John Updike,” a fun piece about signed books, recalling a time in high school when he visited a friend’s house and saw shelf-upon-shelf of books written by John Updike—all of them signed, though his friend’s father wasn’t a professor, a book reviewer, or a fellow novelist. He was an Updike lover . . . and collector.

Lemire tells how that friend’s father and another man showed up at a Harvard event with two duffel bags full of books they wanted Updike to sign.

“I get in line. Updike signs my books; I think him. Turning, I see that Sidney and Charlie have positioned themselves to be the very last in line. . . . Later that night, at home, I get a call from Sidney, who announces with a victor’s pride: ‘He signed them all.’

“Sidney describes the scene: While Mrs. Updike looks on with glowering impatience, John Updike sits in astonishment as one book of his after another is produced like an endless string of colored handkerchiefs from a top hat. As Sidney tells it, Updike delights in re-encountering foreign editions of his books or one-off publications that he had totally forgotten about.

“The story does not end there. The following year, Updike releases yet another book of short stories, and to promote it, he will be reading at the Borders bookstore in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. The newspaper ad for the event reads: ‘One signed book per person. No exceptions.'”

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In Memoriam: Derek Parker Royal

With sadness we report that Derek Parker Royal, who founded the Philip Roth Society in 2002 and also volunteered to serve on the first board of directors for The John Updike Society when it began in 2009, died on July 11, 2019 at the age of 55 as a result of coronary disease.

As current Philip Roth Society president Matthew Shipe wrote in his July 15, 2019 announcement, Derek, who also served as the first executive editor of the journal Philip Roth Studies, was “a kind, energetic, and generous scholar, who brought in many younger scholars into Roth Studies. Derek was a deeply astute critic and writer, and his intelligence and enthusiasm for not only Roth but also comics, music, and films will be deeply missed. He is survived by his wife Amanda and his two children”—who have our deepest sympathies.

Although Derek was too over-committed to remain on the Updike Society board for long, we appreciated his service, his willingness to share things he learned from founding a single author society, and his genial “let’s do this” attitude.

The Philip Roth Society also posted a “Tribute to Derek Parker Royal” that was written by Robert Paul Lamb, who taught Derek in graduate school.

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