Whenever I’m in need of a little adrenaline burst of irritation to get me through another endless Boston mid-winter day of clear skies and 68 degrees, I turn to Slate. The yipping idiocy of their ‘arts’ coverage always does the trick.

This week was no exception. Our old nemesis Katie Roiphe fires off a piece wailing about the dimming of John Updike’s literary reputation in the three years since his death – at least, I think that’s what she’s wailing about (the essay is more eager to push all the buttons than a kid in a department store elevator). She begins:

Exactly three years after his death, it’s sad to see that John Updike has subtly fallen out of fashion, that he is left off best novels lists like the Modern Library’s, and that a faint sense of disapproval clings to his reputation, even as his immense talent is recognized.

It’s obviously not a promising beginning (‘subtly’? ‘faint’?), and things only get worse – Roiphe spends her next two paragraphs demonstrating how a faint sense of disapproval has always clung to Updike’s work, mainly “harbored” by carping critics who are unnerved by just how exquisite that work is:

Critics and writers hold the fact that he writes beautiful sentences against him, as if his writing is too well crafted, too flamboyantly, extravagantly good.

To put it mildly, extravagant goodness was never something I associated with Updike when he was alive and sludging his fictional mud all over the front tables of Boston’s bookstores, and if Roiphe read around a bit on the subject, she’d see that plenty of critics a) thought Updike’s prose stank and b) had lots of other things to hold against him. Nevertheless, it’s enough to let Roiphe work up some nonsensical dander:

The faux-democratic ideal of plain-spokenness, the sense that a novelist should not write too beautifully or he sacrifices some vaguely articulated, semi-mystical claim to honesty, is not a million miles away from the Sarah Palin-ish suspicion of east coast liberals, or a Harvard education, or people who know the dates of wars. This is not to say that writing beautifully or elaborately is necessary for good fiction, but that one can’t deny that there are writers (Henry James, Nabokov, Flaubert) who write beautiful or elaborate sentences without any sacrifice to some mysterious, indefinable fictional mission.

This is funny stuff (“This is not to say that writing beautifully or elaborately is necessary for good fiction…”), and Roiphe, bless her muckraking little heart, keeps at it, stem-winding about critics crying “Why can’t John Updike speak in plain English?”

Updike did, in fact, speak in plain English, but since here Roiphe means why can’t he write in plain English, the answer is: he preferred to write in torturously self-conscious, arch, and painfully pretentious prose, in story after boring story and novel after unbearable novel, until even the most sanguine of those critics thought it would just keep happening every year, like a seasonal flare-up of hemorrhoids. It was a machine, an industry, and the thing that kept its pistons moving was Updike himself, constantly promoting himself while acting like he wasn’t. The shock of grey hair seemed to lend him a certain dignitas, but some critics – myself most vociferously included – knew it for the marketing gimmick it was and confidently predicted that Updike’s literary reputation would begin to cool at about the same time his body did.

Pace Roiphe, this is exactly what’s happening. Oh, not the stupid Modern Library list she mentions (the only list she mentions, and considering the fact that it contains not only typos and mis-attributions but also L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth, why would she want Updike to be on it?), but the far more practical manifestations that were never far from Updike’s crabbed Yankee soul: people don’t buy his books anymore, schools show no inclination to study them, and more and more of them are fading out of print where they all belong. They deserve this oblivion – they’ve always deserved it – not only because they’re all boring but because they were written to be boring, by an author who never took the trouble not to be bored himself. They’re patrician in the very worst sense of that much-abused word: they were just there, whether anybody liked it or not.

Even Roiphe seems to sense this deadly lack of center for any kind of Updike appreciation, so she goes out of her way (or maybe not? Again, thematic clarity isn’t exactly one of her strong points) to bring up something edgy, something that might qualify as interesting: Updike’s misogyny. She allows that he treated his female characters shabbily, as many a critic pointed out over the years, but even here, she’s unwilling to face the possibility that this could be a serious criticism. Instead, she sits a little higher on her high horse:

The writer’s obligation, surely, is to write a charismatic, interesting, illuminating novel about, really, anyone. But this idea that Updike has the responsibilities of a senator, or school principal, or pastor toward his fictional universe, an obligation for fairness and justice to all of his characters, for a clear-sighted, unwavering morality that extends over his New England and Pennsylvania towns, and even in a surprising number of critical briefs against him, for well rounded theological positions, perversely endures.

Again, funny stuff – this time because the person who wrote that train-wreck of a long sentence-fragment at the end is cheering the beauty of somebody else’s prose. I admit, even after a few readings I can’t quite make out what that hysterical quote is trying to say, but if my best guess is correct, Roiphe is trying to warn us that a novelist isn’t under any obligation to be equally fair to all his characters. If that’s what she’s trying to say, she’s of course right – but Updike’s critics on this point weren’t taking him to task for not being a village pastor (???) but for failing to see that he was being misogynistic – in other words (mine, from anonymous reviews in 1971, ’74, and ’82), for dim-wittedly mimeographing his own personal prejudices onto the page without examining them at all, which is indeed a fundamental abandonment of what a novelist is supposed to do. Updike did this because he was a lazy and careless novelist, suffused with entitlement and trivia, dopey with lechery, full to his eyeballs with contempt for his audience. It doesn’t matter if he’s been dead three years or thirty years (or three paragraphs, since that’s how long it takes Roiphe to forget this stuff about misogyny and flutter on to how brave and stoical Updike was facing death): the important thing is that those critics who publicly regretted his fame even while he was still alive were entirely right to do so. It’ll be a very good (clear, 68 degree) day for American letters when, despite the semi-literate gushings of his few holdout fans, John Updike’s fame-rabbit is entirely at rest.


© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue