The Curious Paradox of John Updike

October 24, 2013 | 1 book mentioned 16 4 min read

coverA critic once wrote of John Updike’s “seeming inability to write badly.” True enough: even when Updike’s prose is at its most trivial, its most self-satisfied, its most pornographic — and his critics will point out that it is often all of these things — it is always, from a technical standpoint, immaculate.

Given how difficult writing is, and given how much Updike produced in a legendarily prolific career that spanned more than half a century, it’s worth pausing to consider the remarkable fact of Updike’s talent. In terms of constructing beautiful sentences, Updike had few peers. Not just in the years after World War II, or in the 20th century, but in literary history. At a time when writing is spoken of with tedious frequency as a “craft,” Updike, in his metronomic virtuosity, is uniquely deserving of the term.

And yet, almost five years after his death, Updike’s critics often seem to outweigh his admirers, and their main complaint is that same virtuosity. Of course, Updike was subject to charges of favoring style over substance from the moment he was considered a major writer, but it’s the late-Boomer and early Gen-Xer audience that Updike really annoys. In a footnote to his new translation of Karl Kraus’s essays, Jonathan Franzen — the closest contemporary literature comes to a figure of Updikean stature — writes:

Updike was exquisitely preoccupied with his own literary digestive process, and his virtuosity in clocking and rendering the minutiae of daily life was undeniably unparalleled, but his lack of interest in the bigger postwar, postmodern, socio-technological picture marked him, in my mind, as a classic self-absorbed sixties-style narcissist.

Similarly, in a 1998 essay the late David Foster Wallace declared himself “one of the very few actual subforty Updike fans,” and then proceeded to savage Updike, concluding the essay by calling him an “asshole.” And the critic James Wood contended that Updike’s prose “confronts one with the question of whether beauty is enough.”

The Library of America has just released its two-volume edition of Updike’s Collected Stories (nicely edited by Christopher Carduff), and while I doubt it will do much to improve the author’s sagging stock, at nearly 2,000 pages, comprising 186 stories published between 1953 and 2009, it offers ample opportunity for pondering Wood’s question, and the larger problem of John Updike: he was incapable of writing badly, but was he capable of writing, for lack of a better word, importantly?

Having read nearly 200 of Updike’s stories in rapid succession, I’m more sympathetic to the critics’ point of view than I had been. While not willing to go as far as Franzen, who argues that Updike was “wasting” his “tremendous, Nabokov-level talent,” I was surprised by how many of Updike’s stories impressed me while I read them, and how few left an impression. One can open the Collected Stories to almost any page and find a surprising metaphor, a lovely description, or a wry morsel of irony without remembering much of anything about story that contains it. The stories that I’d already read and admired, the ones widely regarded as Updike’s best — “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” “In Football Season,” “The Persistence of Desire,” “The Happiest I’ve Been,” and, of course, “A&P,” for decades a stalwart of high school curricula — now strike me as a largely comprehensive list, in little need of emendation in light of Updike’s larger corpus.

The curious paradox of Updike is that he made art into a craft, but only rarely did he transcend craft to achieve art. In a sense, then, the answer to Wood’s question is that beauty is not enough, at least not the beauty of finely tuned prose and vivid images that was Updike’s specialty. Art requires the wedding of aesthetics and morals, and the case might be made that the morals are more important; few people would call Dostoyevsky a beautiful writer, but even fewer would contest that he was a great artist.

Still, Updike was capable of art, and if it is disheartening to see how much of that art is concentrated in the early years of his career, when his fiction focused on the still-vital memories of his Pennsylvania childhood — the caricature Updike, the one whose writing is full of explicit sex and overwrought descriptions of the female form, doesn’t show up until the early 1970s, and he is indeed trying — those earliest stories still possess a bracing sublimity. (Not that he never produced strong works later in his career; the stories tracing the collapse of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple — in my opinion, Updike’s greatest work, stronger even than the Rabbit novels — continued well into his later years, but unfortunately, only the first of them appears in the Collected Stories. According to a textual note, the Library of America plans to publish the Maples stories, and the ones about Henry Bech, in a separate collection, an understandable decision that nevertheless weakens the volumes under consideration.)

To my mind, “The Happiest I’ve Been” is the finest of them all. The narrator, John Nordholm, (previously seen in “Friends From Philadelphia”) plans to drive with his high school friend Neil Hovey to Chicago, where he will propose to the girl he loves before returning to school in the east for spring semester. After saying goodbye to John’s parents, Neil reveals that he’d like to go to a New Year’s party in Olinger (the milieu of Updike’s early Pennsylvania stories) before they get underway. They go to the party, and from there to another girl’s house, where they pass the late hours. The night is evocatively drawn, but the crux of the story comes when John and Neil finally leave for Chicago at dawn. On the way to the interstate, they pass John’s house, which they left hours earlier, and Updike captures the oddity of this moment perfectly: “With a .22 I could have had a pane of my parents’ bedroom window, and they were dreaming I was in Indiana.”

They drive on towards Pittsburgh, and here, I’ll defer to Updike:

There were many reasons for my feeling so happy. We were on our way. I had seen a dawn…Ahead, a girl waited who, if I asked, would marry me, but first there was a vast trip: many hours and towns interceded between me and that encounter. There was the quality of the ten a.m. sunlight as it existed in the air ahead of the windshield, filtered by the thin overcast, blessing irresponsibility — you felt you could slice forever through such a cool pure element — and springing, by implying how high these hills had become, a widespreading pride: Pennsylvania, your state — as if you had made your life.

For anyone who has been young in America — for anyone who has been young — this passage needs no explication. It is beautiful, and it is certainly enough.

's work has appeared in The American Scholar, The Believer, and The Los Angeles Review of Books and is forthcoming in The Wall Street Journal. He blogs occasionally at


  1. Alas, it looks as if this burgeoning trend of Updike revisionism and reductionism has snared yet another convert, offering yet another testimonial to remind us that Updike will be regarded as the reigning mediocrity of his day, the Anatole France of late 20th Century American Literature, the likes of which must be swept away like so much trash so that we may appreciate such daunting intellectual colossi as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace.

    Granted, to some degree, Updike set himself up for this flaying — in the end it’s a somewhat problematic body of work, but it’s not quite problematic for the reasons given in this essay.

    Updike’s critics are right to say that he coasted too much on style in his later years, because his books and many of his stories do become repetitious — to read every new novel or story was, ultimately, to be reminded of when he used to do the same thing better. He wasn’t doing anything fresh — maybe he was simply locked into a certain type of perspective. Give him points for trying to write a more social or politically conscious novel with “Terrorist,” but the result was something of an embarrassment.

    Where I disagree, strongly, is when you say he isn’t or was only rarely an artist, presumably because “beauty is not enough” for a real artist. I contend he was an artist, if a sometimes imperfect one, and that beauty in the strongest sense of the word is always more than enough. Oscar Wilde’s first precept is perfectly true: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” I’m flummoxed as to where you got this perfectly Soviet idea that art is about the “wedding of aesthetics and morals,” let alone the idea that morality trumps art.

    This is a completely backwards idea for two reasons — one, because you are making aesthetic judgements on a moral basis, and two, because the inner and moral life of man was so very often Updike’s subject. You are pursuing a bad idea and using the wrong artist as an example.

    Art can certainly BE moral, but morality is not the first goal of a work of fiction — no more than it is the first goal of a symphony or a painting or a poem or a piece of blown glass. The first duty is, I guess, following Wallace Stevens’ dictum, to give pleasure, but for a broader and better definition I have to go back to Wilde: “The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.”

    This was Updike’s focus, and that’s how he should be judged — and his use of the imperfect medium was not just in style but in depth. That’s what Wood and Franzen and Wallace and all those others fail to notice — in fact, it could be argued that all of his critics have a tendency to focus solely on his weaknesses, solely on this or that plush or purplish passage.

    Look at the Rabbit novels or Roger’s Version or certain passages of Villages — they all had an extraordinarily strong command not just of style but of questions involving moral man and immoral society, and in pursuit of those questions he always exhibited both an incredible intellectual curiousity and a considerable grasp of religious and scientific issues.

    There is real muscle in the beauty of Updike’s art — I’m just sorry that after wading through two volumes you came away with such a shallow understanding. It’s as if you read the entire Oxford English Dictionary and announced that the only interesting word is “cat.”

  2. Perhaps “Separating” is indelible in some readers’ mind. The simple “why” question shakes you off your guard and you fumble for reasons for your justifiable pursuit of happiness. Only in vain.

  3. I’m mostly with Welch here. The Rabbit novels, Roger’s Version, Of the Farm, and some other novels are fully engaged with the times in which they were written. He is terribly out of step with these times, but perhaps he’ll be rediscovered by a less jaded generation. (I’m a late boomer, BTW, and his work was always important to me.)

  4. Really? Franzen and DFW as “daunting intellectual colossi”? Come on pretentious windbag. Relent, sir, relent. Updike’s greatest strength is his sheer voluminous-ness. He published and thrived regarding art, the essay, the novel, the poem, the short storiy. JFranz and Wallace, yeah, they wrote a great book each (Corrections and IJ) but they surely lacked the sheer fortitudinal BREADTH that Updike achieved and that no American writer has come close to touching since.

  5. I’m a late-Boomer (b. 1960) and I think Updike is one of the finest U.S. writers of the second half of the last century–short and long fiction, criticism, essays, etc.

    DFW is/was perhaps my favorite U.S. writer (and my contemporary), but we disagreed about Updike. And that’s okay.

  6. Sean H., re-read Rodney’s comment. I doubt he believes Franzen and Wallace are intellectual colossi.

  7. I remember reading as an undergraduate in the early 80’s. It is from the 1980 edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature: “This sense of place, which is also a sense of life, is found in the stories and the novels too, although Updike has found it harder to invent convincing forms in which to tell longer tales. His most ambitious novel is probably The Centaur (1964), memorable for its portrayal of three days of confusion and terror in the life of an American high-school teacher seen through his son’s eyes; but the book is also burdened with an elaborate set of mythical trappings that seem inevitable. Couples (1968), a novel which gained him a good deal of notoriety as a chronicler of sexual relationships, marital and adulterous, is jammed with much interesting early-1960s lore about suburban life but seems uncertain whether it is an exercise in realism or creative fantasy, as does his recent Marry Me (1976).” So, I guess the point is, this is not just recent criticism; it has been going on for a while. In other words, it is not just the late Boomers who have this problem with Updike. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the late Boomers myself–born 1961).

    I have always enjoyed Updike’s critical writings more than his novels or stories. He was widely read and came across as a deeply receptive reader; I really have learned a lot from his critically. I also enjoyed his appreciation of books as physical objects, as he wrote about the heft of the books, the font sizes, the feel of the paper with feeling. I also really like that he tried–for the most part unsuccessfully–to bring writers like Henry Green to more prominence. Some Updike’s stories (Wife-Wooing, Separating) are conscious echoes of Green’s titles (Party Going, Doting, Concluding). Sadly, Updike lacked Green’s sense of comedy and manic energy.

    I think that part of Updike’s problem was that he did not maintain enough critical distance from the scene he was writing about. Henry James and Edith Wharton were not only part of the scenes they wrote about, but were also able to retain some critical distance. Tolstoy was in a similar position. I’d argue the same for Sinclair Lewis, who wrote of a similar suburban scene, but did so more satirically than Updike (Rabbit Angstrom must have been a conscious echo of Lewis’ Babbitt; my preference remains for Babbitt).

    Perhaps a better comparison would be with some of Updike’s contemporaries, who wrote novels in similar scenes. Some of this is a matter of personal taste, but I really prefer Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge to any of Updike’s novels.

  8. I don’t think Wallace was calling Updike himself an asshole, he mentions that he has read a dozen of his books and your review quotes him as saying he was “a fan”….
    I think Wallace was referring to the main character in the novel he was reviewing.

  9. DFW didn’t call Updike an asshole; he said that Updike’s character in Before the End of Time was an asshole.

    Not too fine a point.

  10. Hi Duxbury and David,

    Yes, DFW is calling the character an asshole, but go back and have another read, and you’ll see what Wallace was up to.

    Glad to see Updike can still start a conversation or three.

  11. What do the Brits say? “Bollocks”. You know, the doughy Northern fellow weighs in on some BBC sitcom, confronted by some unarguable nonsense and laughs, “Shite mate, it’s just shite.”
    Franzen standing over Updike’s grave? Really? Jonathan Franzen?
    Lemme quote another Brit standing over another grave,” A ministering angel will my sister be when thou liest howling.”
    Now I can’t claim sisterhood with Updike but he’s a Pennsylvania brother and maybe that’s the thing most critics don’t get. He was born poor. Go to his house in Shillington, sit under the dinner table. He wasn’t part of the WASP establishment. He never wanted to defend it or parse its motives, or lack thereof.
    If there’s anything he wanted to defend – Christ can we even pick up these arms to defend him- it was a plurality of motives, a democracy of impulse- he was closer to Jefferson than anybody “modern”. And people call that apolitical. It’s laissez faire. It’s rich. Shite mate.
    I don’t think he ever would have stated it but like Nabokov hated the Bolsheviks, Updike hated the Puritans. They hated the same thing. That there’s a “way” , a code, a destiny demanded. What else are we doing when we argue that art needs a moral meter, a social aspect tapping out its rhythm? Heaven must be built on earth and we know how. There’s a gulag or a crucible over there if you doubt. Or even worse, we’ll unfriend you!
    Updike saw what most poor kids do. The world is mostly empty space. You can feel the entropy in his stories, its bleak tension between his words. The American void. Unless filled up with something – work, violence, faith, beautiful astonishingly crafted language it will drag you toward the shuttered banks and abandoned farms of Olinger. Or right into Cormac McCarthy.
    So yeah a Protestant work ethic but no faith. Or an older faith; circumspect, tolerant, behavioral, with charity not chatter. What did Franzen call him, “a sixties era narcissist”? Okay. Maybe live and let live is a political cop out. Write and let live still has some teeth. And some humanity.
    But not for our modern Puritans. You need to write right. Not well, but right. We need a new Dostoyevsky? Save me. Save us.
    We’re still living in their bloody shadows, like the kid in Fanny and Alexander followed by his smoldering step father. Till we shake off that inheritance, disown those founding fathers we’ll be writing “corrections” for years.

  12. I always tell people: “The Centaur”, “The Centaur”, “The Centaur”. I’ve read it 15 times. This is one of the greatest novels ever written and should be regarded as a 20th century classic.

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