Updike among novelists quizzed on writing habits

Way back in 2012, Mental Floss published a piece by Lucas Reilly titled “Famous Novelists on Symbolism in Their Work and Whether It Was Intentional.”  It’s a fun read, because Reilly gets his material from a 16-year-old boy’s query.

“It was 1963, and 16-year-old Bruce McAllister was sick of symbol-hunting in English class. Rather than quarrel with his teacher, he went straight to the source: McAllister mailed a crude, four-question survey to 150 novelists, asking if they intentionally planted symbolism in their work. Seventy-five authors responded.” Reilly includes 12 of them: Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Ray Bradbury, Ralph Ellison, Joseph Heller, Richard Hughes, MacKinlay Kantor, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Iris Murdoch, Ayn Rand, and John Updike.

In answer to the question “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?…If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?” Updike responds, “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

If that seems testy, consider Kantor’s dismissal of the student’s questionnaire: “Nonsense, young man, write your own research paper. Don’t expect others to do the work for you.”

Asked if readers “ever infer that there is symbolism” in his writing where he “had not intended it to be,” Updike responds, “Once in a while—usually they do not [see the] symbols that are there.”

“Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing?… Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?” Updike’s response: “Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”

By the time he got around to answering the fourth question, Updike seemed to feel as Kantor did. Asked if he had “anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study” Updike responded, “It would be better for you to do your own thinking on this sort of thing.”

Reilly’s story was a condensation of “Document: The Symbolism Survey,” written by Sarah Funke Butler and published Dec. 5, 2011 in The Paris Review.

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Writer describes living in Updike country

Writing for Literary Hub, Thomas E. Ricks shared what it was like “Growing Up Inside a John Updike Novel” in the “Shadows at the Edge of Updike’s Work.”

Ricks said his first word—”boat”—was spoken “about the time that John Updike was moving into a small house a few miles to the north of Essex.”  But, “It was only recently, when reading Adam Begley’s biography of Updike, that I realized how much Updike and I breathed the same disconcerted air in those years. . . . Updike’s beaches were my beaches—Crane and Wingaersheek, both located between Gloucester’s rocks and Ipswich’s marshes. As newlyweds, Updike and his first wife had worked at the YMCA Family Camp on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, while my family around that time spent a week of the summer at Squam Lake, the next body of water to the west.”

“When old and wealthy, Updike spent some of his royalty payments golfing at the venerable Myopia Hunt Club, where my grandparents sometimes took me to dinner when I was a child,” Ricks writes. And getting even more into the territory of family myth he says, “My mother told me that once at a cocktail party, Updike poured a drink down the front of her dress. She was not sure if it had been on purpose.”

The writer considers how “At one point in Couples, one half of an adulterous couple contemplating having sex on a pile of dirty clothes in a basement laundry room in a house on the outskirts of Ipswich looks up at the cellar window to check if a ‘child’s watching shadow cleft it.’ I would have been seven years and eight years old in the year in which the novel is set, from early 1963 to early 1964. That might have been my shadow there,” he muses.

Read the full essay.

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Reading Eagle bankruptcy story cites Updike

When an important community business and local institution announces its filing for bankruptcy protection, you’d think that would be news enough. But when the Reading Eagle did so in March, The Philadelphia Inquirer headline read, “The Pennsylvania newspaper where novelist John Updike interned files for bankruptcy.”

“The Reading Eagle, partly owned by two of the richest families in America, filed for bankruptcy protection Wednesday afternoon as the local-news industry continues to be battered,” reporter Bob Fernandez wrote.

“The Eagle was founded by Jesse G. Hawley and William S. Ritter in 1868 and has been owned by Hawley’s descendants since then. In the 1950s, author John Updike worked several summers as a copyboy at the Eagle and also wrote several feature articles.”

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Blogger picks Rabbit, Run for his pseudo bookclub

You’ve got to love a blog that’s titled Coming Up Millhouse, especially when the “about” section begins with a Homer J. Simpson quote:  “Maybe, just once, someone will call me ‘sir’ without adding, ‘you’re making a scene’.” And especially when the blogger posts an entry on “Reading The Classics – ‘Rabbit, Run’.”

“In 2019, myself and a friend sat down to form a pseudo bookclub,” Derrhn writes. “Our goal: to read the classics we are yet to get round to. We started with John Updike’s debut novel, Rabbit, Run.”

“I can’t exaggerate how much I enjoyed this book,” Derrhn says. “If you’ve ever read Catcher in the Rye or On the Road and felt frustrated about how the respective protagonists’ abandonment of responsibility goes unpunished, then Rabbit, Run is the book for you. Updike explicitly explores the disaster left behind when someone chooses to run away. Rabbit’s futile attempts to fill the vague sense of something missing leads to: death; loneliness; a loss of religion; and sexual impotence. In many ways the book reads as a direct confrontation of the hypocrisy inherent in the burgeoning hippie counter-culture of 1960s America.

“The pleasure of reading Rabbit, Run stems from the paradox at its heart. Harry is both ‘running’ to find something, anything that might make him feel complete whilst simultaneously running away from a truth that scares him—that his life peaked in high school.”

Well Sir, that assessment seems spot-on to us.


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Updike turns up at an Edible Book Festival

In case you missed it, this past April Alvernia University held an Edible Book Festival at which John Updike’s Rabbit, Run was represented by (what else?) “a large, chocolate rabbit with a marathon medal around its neck.” Low-hanging fruit?

“Alvernia’s Edible Book Festival offers food for thought,” by Susan Shelly.

Alvernia will host the 6th Biennial John Updike Society Conference in Reading, Pa. the first week of October 2020.


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George Nick art show draws Updike mention

You’ll need a subscription to access The Columbus [Ohio] Dispatch, but a story about an exhibition earlier this spring, “‘George Nick: Fresh Air, A Worldy Perspective’ at Hawk Galleries Features a nonagenarian for whom all subjects are fair game,” mentions that “The late writer John Updike was a friend and neighbor of Nick. For a 1993 retrospective of the painter, Updike wrote an appropriate comment: ‘Any subject will do, as long as the subject is not exploited for its anecdotal or picturesque qualities but is taken in good conscience as an occasion for pure painting.'”

From his website: “Nationally recognized as a leading realist painter, George Nick’s work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Hirschhorn Museum; and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., as well as many others.”

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Blogger considers Updike on Van Gogh

John MacDougall posted a May 1 2019 entry on his blog, The New Yorker and Me, titled “Updike on Van Gogh,” in which he draws attention to “Updke’s great posthumous essay collection Higher Gossip” and considers what he considers to be the two best pieces: “Uncertain Skills, Determined Spirit” and “The Purest of Styles.” Both deal with van Gogh, MacDougall’s “favorite painter.”

MacDougall quotes from both essays, in particular paying notice to his favorite passage in “Uncertain Skills” that “contrasts van Gogh’s two pen copies of his superb Harvest in Provence.” Of Updike’s assessment that “The drawings brim with latent color” he writes, “That last line is inspired.

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Stage version of Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius opens today

It’s been three years in the making, but today the curtain opens again on the stage version of John Updike’s Hamlet prequel, Gertrude and Claudius.

As Jeffrey Borak of The Berkshire Eagle, dateline Pittsfield, Mass., writes, “Based on a novel by John Updike, Mark St. Germain’s ‘Gertrude and Claudius’ was commissioned by Orlando Shakespeare Theatre in 2016. It took three years and a grant from the Edgerton Foundation for the play to have its world premiere earlier this year in Orlando, Fla., in a production that ran from late February to late March.

“‘The rights were held up. Updike’s son, David, was helpful in getting the rights released,’ St. Germain said, explaining the delay, during a recent pre-rehearsal interview in a conference room at Barrington Stage Company’s Wolfson Center on North Street, where he was joined by BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd and Elijah Alexander and Kate MacCluggage who are playing the title couple in the Boyd-directed production of ‘Gertrude and Claudius’ which . . . officially opens Sunday afternoon at BSC’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, where it is scheduled to run through Aug. 3.”

“‘The relationship between Gertrude and her son is beautifully drawn’ Alexander said. ‘Claudius is a childless man, wanting to be a father.'”

“‘The stakes are high here,’ Boyd said. ‘Gertrude and Claudius are willing to risk all for sex and love.'”

“‘I think one of the questions Mark raises in the play is ‘What is love? Is it just how people feel?'” MacCluggage said.

Read the full article.

In “Barrington Stage Company Presents Mark St. Germain’s ‘Gertrude And Claudius,'” Joe Donahue, or The Roundtable (19 July 2019) writes, “‘Gertrude and Claudius’ is based on John Updike’s 2000 novel of the same title. The story shows Queen Gertrude’s relationship with Hamlet’s father, who appears only as a ghost in the Shakespeare play, and how she conspires with his brother Claudius to commit the murder that sets in motion the events of the classic drama.

“St. Germain has a long history with Barrington Stage, this being his 13th play produced by the company.”

YouTube Behind-the-scenes clips and interviews from the Barrington Stage production


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Updike’s Rabbit named one of The 100 Greatest Literary Characters

The characters aren’t ranked, but John Updike’s most famous fictional creation, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, made the cut to be included in The 100 Greatest Literary Characters, published July 2019 by Rowman & Littlefield.

The authors of the volume—James Plath, Gail Sinclair, and Kirk Curnutt—considered previous lists, plus recommendations from 100 writers, librarians, teachers, and book lovers they polled in order to come up with a list of “characters who have become larger than their lives on the page”—those that are “time-honored reader favorites, prototypes, and cultural influencers . . . who have somehow entered the collective public consciousness, ones who were influential models for others to follow, and ones who have been so popular with readers that they have become significant, memorable, or even cherished.”

Of Rabbit, Plath writes, “Literature is full of heroes and antiheroes, but Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom is uniquely average—a flawed, irrepressible, and often unlikable human being who is still somehow so endearing to audiences worldwide that one novel couldn’t contain him.” He’s “unfaithful, impulse driven, prejudiced, and old-fashioned when it comes to women. But he is a seeker, a quester of truth. With a healthy libido and appetite for life, Rabbit, though in many ways a typical American male, nonetheless manages to see everyday objects and people in a more brilliant and illuminating light than the average person. He has never lost his childlike sense of wonder—a rare quality that draws people toward him.”

The author with the most characters in the book is Charles Dickens, whose Miss Havisham, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Oliver Twist were included. Among Updike’s contemporaries, Toni Morrison had two (Pilate Dead and Sethe), while Philip Roth and Saul Bellow had one each (Alexander Portnoy and Eugene Henderson, respectively).

The book is available from Amazon.


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Reader responds to National Review appraisal of Updike’s first four novels

In the May 20, 2019 National Review, Peter Tonguette wrote a review of the Library of America release of John Updike’s first four novels that wasn’t terribly positive. Dean Bevan, Professor Emeritus of English at Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., responded with a letter to the editor (excerpted here):

“Mr. Tonguette capably examines the Library of America’s volume containing Updike’s first four novels and rightly questions some of the quirks in his early writing. But the review leaves the reader with an unbalanced and somewhat unfair impression of Mr. Updike, focusing on the growing pains of his early career (‘written in a windy, pretentious style’) and including such statements as ‘He thought of himself as a man of the Left.’

“I can’t answer for how John Updike thought of himself, but I can say, after reading and teaching his novels for several decades, that he was without question one of our country’s most conservative writers of fiction, and its best. He questions the views and the avatars of the Left and admires conservative ideas, in novel after novel, and it is likely that he was denied the Nobel Prize because of this (as he guessed), while lesser but more progressive talents received it.

“As the reviewer observes, Updike took ‘the measure of the world as it really was.’ Himself a painter, he once observed that the most important painter of the 20th century was Norman Rockwell, because he followed the tradition of the masters in representing life as it was lived in his own time. How unwoke is that? And it would seem that Updike meant to do the same thing in his writing. . . . America has had relatively few conservative writers—T.S. Eliot comes to mind—and we should celebrate the great ones we have had, such as John Updike.”

Included with the letter’s publication is a response from Tonguette, who says “I agree with Mr. Bevan’s characterization of John Updike as one of the great contemporary conservative writers.”

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