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 the actual labor was brief and painless: he passed from unpublished college student to valued contributor in less than two months.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 (jplath@iwu.edu). 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.

Literary Hub recently posted Margaret Atwood‘s original 1985 review of The Witches of Eastwick:  “Margaret Atwood on Phallus Worship and Updike’s Bad Witches.” In it, she praised the book for its magical realism—a style, or genre, that has eluded American writers.

“These are not 1980’s Womanpower witches,” Atwood writes. “They aren’t at all interested in healing the earth, communing with the Great Goddess, or gaining Power-within (as opposed to Power-over). These are bad Witches, and Power-within, as far as they are concerned, is no good at all unless you can zap somebody with it. They are spiritual descendants of the 17th-century New England strain and go in for sabbats, sticking pins in wax images, kissing the Devil’s backside and phallus worship; this latter though—since it is Updike—is qualified worship.

After describing the book’s premise she writes, “This may sound like an unpromising framework for a serious novelist. Has Mr. Updike entered second childhood and reverted to Rosemary’s babyland? I don’t think so. For one thing, The Witches of Eastwick is too well done. Like Van Horne, Mr. Updike has always wondered what it would be like to be a woman, and his witches give him a lot of scope for this fantasy. Lexa in particular, who is the oldest, the plumpest, the kindest and the closest to Nature, is a fitting vehicle for some of his most breathtaking similes. In line of descent, he is perhaps closer than any other living American writer to the Puritan view of Nature as a lexicon written by God, but in hieroglyphs, so that unending translation is needed. Mr. Updike’s prose, here more than ever, is a welter of suggestive metaphors and cross-references, which constantly point toward a meaning constantly evasive.

“His version of witchcraft is closely tied to both carnality and mortality. Magic is hope in the face of inevitable decay. The houses and the furniture molder, and so do the people. The portrait of Felicia Gabriel, victim wife and degenerate after-image of the one-time ‘peppy’ American cheerleading sweetheart, is gruesomely convincing. Bodies are described in loving detail, down to the last tuft, wart, wrinkle and bit of food stuck in the teeth. No one is better than Mr. Updike at conveying the sadness of the sexual, the melancholy of motel affairs—’amiable human awkwardness,’ Lexa calls it. This is a book that redefines magic realism.

Later, she concludes, “Much of The Witches of Eastwick is satire, some of it literary playfulness and some plain bitchery. It could be that any attempt to analyze further would be like taking an elephant gun to a puff pastry: An Updike should not mean but be. But again, I don’t think so. What a culture has to say about witchcraft, whether in jest or in earnest, has a lot to do with its views of sexuality and power, and especially with the apportioning of powers between the sexes. The witches were burned not because they were pitied but because they were feared. . . .

“Mr. Updike provides no blameless way of being female. Hackles will rise, the word ‘backlash’ will be spoken; but anyone speaking it should look at the men in this book, who, while proclaiming their individual emptiness, are collectively, offstage, blowing up Vietnam. That’s male magic. Men, say the witches, more than once, are full of rage because they can’t make babies, and even male babies have at their center ‘that aggressive vacuum.’ Shazam indeed!”

The Neo-Neocon, in blogging that “It just might be a good time to revisit this quote from Milan Kundera on circle dancing,” cited a long passage from John Updike’s original review of the English translation of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, published circa 1980:

“This book…is brilliant and original, written with a purity and wit that invite us directly in; it is also strange, with a strangeness that locks us out…

“…[T]he mirror does not so readily give back validation with this playful book, more than a collection of seven stories yet certainly no novel, by an expatriate Czech resident in France, fascinated by sex, and prone to sudden, if graceful, skips into autobiography, abstract rumination, and recent Czech history. Milan Kundera, he tells us, was as a young man among that moiety of Czechs–’the more dynamic, the more intelligent, the better half’–who cheered the accession of the Communists to power in February 1948. He was then among the tens of thousands rapidly disillusioned by the harsh oppressions of the new regime: ‘And suddenly those young, intelligent radicals had the strange feeling of having sent something into the world, a deed of their own making, which had taken on a life of its own, lost all resemblance to the original idea, and totally ignored the originators of the idea. So those young, intelligent radicals started shouting to their deed, calling it back, scolding it, chasing it, hunting it down.’

“Kundera’s prose presents a surface like that of a shattered mirror, where brightly mirroring fragments lie mixed with pieces of lusterless silvering. The Communists idyll he youthfully believed in seems somehow to exist for him still, though mockingly and excludingly. He never asks himself—the most interesting political question of the century–why a plausible and necessarily redistribution of wealth should, in its Communist form, demand such an exorbitant sacrifice of individual freedom? Why must the idyll turn, not merely less than idyll, but nightmare?

“The position of a writer from the Socialist world in the West cannot but be uncomfortable. He cannot but despise us for our cheap freedoms, our more subtle enslavements; and we it may be, cannot but condescend to his discovery, at such heavy cost to his life, of lessons that Messrs. Churchill and Truman so roundly read to us 35 years ago.”

Neo-Neocon concludes, “That probably tells you more about Updike’s politics and quality of mind (see much more here) than about Kundera. However, I actually think that, although Kundera doesn’t directly spell out the answer to that ‘most interesting political question of the century,’ the answer is inherent in everything he writes.”

John Updike had a reputation for finding just the right word or phrase to describe something, and one of his spot-on descriptions was recently cited by Treble “zine” reviewer Jeff Terich.

In “Premiere: Biblical space out on new track ‘Fugue State,'” a review from the album The City That Always Sleeps, Terich notes its “tense build-up that releases with an atmospheric, almost shoegazey texture.”

Terich quotes the Toronto band‘s lead vocalist and bassist, Nick Sewell, who implies that Updike was an inspiration:

“We were determined to explore some new sounds for this record and ‘Fugue State’ definitely falls into that category. More than any other song on the record, it really operates with a sense of open space. That gave us plenty of room to experiment, specifically with the vocals which turned out to have a sort of morbid ‘Pet Sounds’ vibe.

“Lyrically, the song is a classic rumination on existential dread—the type you might have in the middle of the night after waking from a bad dream. There’s a poem by John Updike called ‘Perfection Wasted’ that I kept coming back to. It rides a fine line between dry, sardonic wit and tenderness. Definitely the qualities I was hoping to capture with ‘Fugue State.’”

“Perfection Wasted” was included in The Best American Poetry 2016, edited by Edward Hirsch and David Lehman.

It’s been out for quite a while, but it’s just come to our attention that John Updike is included in the sportswriting anthology Ted Williams: Reflections on a Splendid Life (Northeastern, 2003), edited by Lawrence Baldassaro and with a foreword by Dom DiMaggio.

As the Amazon description notes:

“It features thirty-five articles by celebrated sportswriters and best-selling authors, including Al Hirschberg (“Handsome Bad Boy of the Boston Red Sox”), Red Smith (“Ted Williams Spits”), Bud Collins (” ‘Saint’ Goes Marching In”), Peter Gammons (“Williams an Unquestioned Hit with Him”), Ed Linn (“The Kid’s Last Game”), John Updike (“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”), Donald Hall (“The Necessary Shape of the Old-Timers’ Game”), John Underwood (“Going Fishing with the Kid”), Stephen Jay Gould (“Achieving the Impossible Dream: Ted Williams and.406”), and David Halberstam (“The Perfectionist at the Plate”). Taken together, the pieces offer a vivid mosaic of a true American great who is admired and respected as much by today’s ballplayers and fans as those of his own generation.”

From the Publishers Weekly review:

“A well-selected collection of articles about baseball great Ted Williams, this volume works on many levels. A slice of 20th-century American literature, it chronicles the evolution of sports journalism from Red Smith to Pete Gammons while showcasing selections from literary giants like John Updike and Donald Hall. Arranged chronologically, the collection works as a biographical collage and stunning account of the cyclical nature of American hero worship. Not surprisingly, several less flattering pieces on the cantankerous Williams are included, but instead of detracting from Williams’s legend they help present a comprehensive picture of a man so captivating that more than half this volume’s works were written after his 1960 retirement. Collectively, these articles tell readers almost as much about the featured writers as they do about the slugger himself. This is partly attributable to Williams’s image as the reluctant hero, but also to the fact that Williams courted both favor and disdain with his single-minded determination to make himself the world’s greatest hitter, fisherman, combat pilot and philanthropist, all pursuits as solitary as putting pen to paper. So many of the writers insert themselves into their stories as a means of explaining Williams’s complex personality that the underlying similarity between the slugger and the writers becomes a theme of the collection, exemplifying Williams’s irresistible lure for reporters, novelists, poets and even mathematicians. Thanks to this unprecedented connection between athlete and authors, this compilation stands as a fitting literary epitaph for a man who may never get one set in stone. Illus. not seen by PW.”

« Older entries § Newer entries »