John Updike never tried to push a woman out of a moving car
October 2, 2019 4:47 PM   Subscribe

Malfunctioning Sex Robot Patricia Lockwood tries to read every novel by John Updike.
posted by MisantropicPainforest (64 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
 
oh! oh! jail for mother! jail for mother for One Thousand Years!!!!
posted by Foci for Analysis at 4:56 PM on October 2, 2019 [15 favorites]


This was great. Much more generous than I would ever have found it in me to be.
posted by Countess Elena at 4:57 PM on October 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


Wallace’s vivisection of Updike’s misogyny seems calm and cool and virtuous, and then you remember that to the best of anyone’s knowledge Updike never tried to push a woman out of a moving car.

Ooooh, two for the price of one.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:18 PM on October 2, 2019 [41 favorites]


This is one of the best things I've read all year.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:19 PM on October 2, 2019 [9 favorites]


Well, that was enjoyably written and entirely relieved me of even the most lingering feeling that I needed to read any Updike. I feel like I got enough flickering deer and good mid-century-esque pacing from Lockwood that I can content myself with her.

~~
I mean, the real thing about Updike etc is resentment. They don't want to be married or monogamous or to take care of children or own houses, but instead of taking responsibility for their own feelings and desires they get bullied by social expectation into being shitty fathers and shitty husbands and writers who hate women. Lazy, irresponsible, trifling, distasteful. A whole life of being godawful is a kind of abusiveness even if it never rises to violence.
posted by Frowner at 5:21 PM on October 2, 2019 [51 favorites]


About halfway through, but... I've read a single Updike novel, Rabbit Run, when I was about 19 or so. I was a very bad English major, and the novel was on a list where each of us had to pick an unique title from the list and then do a report about themes or some-such. I remember being both too young to get the marital angst, and also too "uncultured" to really get the ideas behind the critique (such as it is) of mainstream American mid-century culture. I do remember fucking hating Rabbit, though, and thinking him a colossal asshole. I actually bought 1 or 2 thrifted Updike novels later, and never bothered to read them, having the bad taste of Rabbit Run still in my mouth. This is a wonderful profile to read.
posted by codacorolla at 5:21 PM on October 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


gosh Lockwood is such a wonderful writer. I have absolutely no relationship to Updike's writing, but I found this review spellbinding, hilarious, and achingly beautiful in equal measure.
posted by Kybard at 5:23 PM on October 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


The only Updike I've ever read was the short story "A&P", for high school English, and the story had parts that I could intensely identify with (seeing someone wander through my life that I'm struck by so quickly and deeply, like the woman with the white parasol that Mr. Bernstein talks about in Citizen Kane, that I instantly mourn the fact that I probably won't see them again), and some things that were beyond my experience, like quitting my job on the spot to try to impress someone (if I needed a job like that badly enough to apply for it in the first place, I really didn't have the luxury of ragequitting it). Lockwood's experience with Updike in general seems to have been of a piece with that. I'm not tempted to read any more of Updike's work now, but I'm certainly glad to have read Lockwood's perspective on it.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:37 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


I assume this is why this joke crossed my timeline tonight so it was worth it. @mammonmachine
in the bookstore with gf*
Her: have you read this?
me: ew...no. It's Updike.
Her: What's Updike?
me: LMAO NOT MUCH WHATS UP WITH U
posted by Space Coyote at 5:42 PM on October 2, 2019 [72 favorites]


The only Updike I ever read was The Witches of Eastwick (of the infamous women pee all complicated while men pee thunderously passage) when I was 16 or so. I never felt the urge to read another of his books.
posted by lovecrafty at 6:14 PM on October 2, 2019 [13 favorites]


Updike was the writer who singlehandedly destroyed my interest in mainstream literature when I had to read him in high school English. I loved this essay.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:16 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


It took me a surprisingly long way into this review to realize I have no fucking idea who John Updike is, actually.

I mean, I've heard the name, and in my mind it's tagged with "Important Writer," but it turns out I have no idea why I should care about him. I stopped reading the article to look at Updike's bibliography, hoping to see if anything stands out to me. I have no relationship to his writing, and at this juncture I am unlikely to ever take one up.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 6:21 PM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


Updike was the writer who singlehandedly destroyed my interest in mainstream literature when I had to read him in high school English.

You missed out. "Mainstream literature" is a crazyquilt of a thousand different tastes and techniques and ideas and very little of it reads like John Updike. Some of it, probably more of it, reads like Patricia Lockwood.

But I have never read Updike except for A&P. Even 25 years ago when I was doing lots of creative writing workshops, he was seen as kind of musty and antique. People who wanted to talk about mid-century upper class white American men were more into John Cheever and Richard Yates. I haven't heard anyone mention John Cheever in years.
posted by escabeche at 6:39 PM on October 2, 2019


As I get older, it becomes clearer that I cannot trust there will be anything insightful or "true" about women in literature written by men. Not because women are inscrutable (or unknowable, or aliens, or whatever), but because men raised in a patriarchy seem to be fundamentally incapable of imagining women as anything other than objects--or scenery. (This probably extends to anything men create which tries to talk about women, such as film or painting or...).

I might be a wee bit cynical.
posted by maxwelton at 6:41 PM on October 2, 2019 [18 favorites]


I have never read any updike but i am really glad i read this
posted by supermedusa at 6:42 PM on October 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


I used to feel a kind of guilt about not wanting to read the Midcentury Misogynists; was I too uncultured? Too "PC"? What kind of lover of books can I be if a mere browse through the fields of Roth, Updike and so on fills me with revulsion?

And then I thought: how many great women writers never got a tenth of the attention these guys got? Or never even got published? Probably a lot of them, right?

And how narrow is the world these writers know and describe--pretty stifling and narrow, yes?

Since then, I have dealt with any feelings of guilt by finding a new woman writer to try, or a POC writer, or non-Western writer. It's working out pretty well. I almost never have to read terrible women characters anymore.
posted by emjaybee at 6:45 PM on October 2, 2019 [26 favorites]


I used to feel a kind of guilt about not wanting to read the Midcentury Misogynists; was I too uncultured? Too "PC"? What kind of lover of books can I be if a mere browse through the fields of Roth, Updike and so on fills me with revulsion?

I'm officially Cultured As Fuck and the only one I'll even give five minutes to is Bellow, because the opening of Humboldt's Gift is really kind of amazing, even if maybe that's only because it's only a lightly fictionalized version of what happened to Bellow's real-life friend Delmore Schwartz.

The rest of them--heck, pick some moderately obscure woman writer of the early 20th century like Sylvia Townsend Warner and you'll do better by yourself.

Stay free, is what I'm saying!
posted by praemunire at 7:07 PM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


I read every book by all of these dudes a decade ago after getting too much shit for figuring that they sucked without reading them. I enjoyed most of their books, but they all do suck in certain ways. They all had talent and they all had shitty perspectives.

From a talent standpoint:

Roth>Bellow>Cheever>Updike>Yates

From a shit viewpoint standpoint:

Bellow>Cheever>Updike>Roth>Yates

Certain Roth and Bellow books are the only ones that I could imagine recommending to anyone female or under 50 without feeling like a tool, and I would still probably throw in some caveats. The only one that might be underrated in 2019 is Cheever.

I don't know. I can read books by dickheads and still enjoy them. I don't think that other people should feel compelled to do so, though.
posted by bootlegpop at 8:15 PM on October 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


For some reason, despite never having read anything of his, I had been categorizing Updike as similar to John Barth. Reading this essay makes me really wonder how I came to that conclusion. Also, I'm pretty sure Lockwood is better than both of them.
posted by jsnlxndrlv at 9:16 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Certain Roth and Bellow books are the only ones that I could imagine recommending to anyone female or under 50 without feeling like a tool,

restricting naughty-shelf bad-politics books to certain classes and to boys only, like they used to do with Catullus, is the worst imaginable response to noticing bigotries in books. much worse than outright censorship.

anything that would offend a woman or young person, or make you feel like a tool, would do far far worse to a man if you gave him these books to read. and demonstrably has! it's very easy to start listing off men who have been irreparably intellectually damaged by exposure to this stuff. Women, not so much, not nearly: look at Lockwood.

Anything you think is actually good, good enough to be read in spite of its worst problems, recommend to people you think deserve to read good books. If they aren't good enough for women, they aren't good enough for anybody. If you don't think men need the warnings and the caveats much more urgently than women need them, I assure you: they do.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:28 PM on October 2, 2019 [43 favorites]


That was amazing, and probably as much Updik as I want to be exposed to. Lockwood did write about him well and I felt some of the beauty that might make some people think it was all worth it.
posted by fleacircus at 9:29 PM on October 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Wait, hang on, he really thought that women tend to take longer in the bathroom because *peeing itself* takes longer for women?

Not, y'know, fussier clothing, makeup adjustments, the joy of being temporarily left alone, or any other features of women's lives in his social milieu?

I am boggled. This is the keen observer of American life? Argh!

(I'm not sure that I've actually read any Updike. If so, it probably blurred together with all the other books full of unlikeable characters that I'm happy to forget.)
posted by inexorably_forward at 9:42 PM on October 2, 2019 [10 favorites]


restricting naughty-shelf bad-politics books to certain classes and to boys only, like they used to do with Catullus, is the worst imaginable response to noticing bigotries in books. much worse than outright censorship.

anything that would offend a woman or young person, or make you feel like a tool, would do far far worse to a man if you gave him these books to read. and demonstrably has! it's very easy to start listing off men who have been irreparably intellectually damaged by exposure to this stuff. Women, not so much, not nearly: look at Lockwood.

Anything you think is actually good, good enough to be read in spite of their worst problems, recommend to people you think deserve to read good books. If they aren't good enough for women, they aren't good enough for anybody.


I see your point. TBH, I don't associate with anyone over 50 that who I'm not related to, I barely recommend books to anyone, the only person who I've recommended any of these books to is someone who already wanted to read Roth and asked which one is best, there are far better authors to recommend, and I usually make a point of trying to be really un-pushy about recommending things in the rare case that I do.

I primarily threw that in as a hypothetical because I was trying to thread the needle of stating that I thought that there was some worth to these authors while still acknowledging that there are also large problems with them. I know that there are counterexamples, but almost every author who started publishing before the 70's is problematic to a certain extent.

I think that these authors are worth being read by prolific readers, and I know women and people under 50 who have read them. However, I don't think that they are in the top 20 authors that one should read first, and I would generally prefer to recommend the best thing that I think a person would enjoy first. If I thought that someone would enjoy them a great deal, no matter what their sex or age, I would recommend them. However, if someone is likely to be offended by an author, I'm not going to be the person to try to push them on the person, even if they are literally my favorite author. That just seems rude, to the extent of almost being an act of aggression.

Maybe there isn't a way to thread the needle of not being the jerkass "you gotta read this" person while also not withholding certain authors. My perspective may also be skewed since I'm nearly the opposite of macho, but I was raised by a single mother who was really into more outre macho dude lit like Harrison, Stone, McGuane, etc. She has found value in weirder dudes who were probably as or more problematic and passed a somewhat similar sensibility on to me. I spent my teens and my early 20's learning that most women and many people have far less patience for dudes like that. (Though, if we're gonna save anyone who I've mentioned in either of these posts, my pick would be Robert Stone.) Knowing that I like things that other people wouldn't like doesn't mean that I'm withholding things of worth from people when not pushing macho shit on people, but rather that I'm trying to cater to their tastes, which any good recommendation should do.
posted by bootlegpop at 9:57 PM on October 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


So as not to withhold, if someone really felt like they had to read a book by the authors that I mentioned, I would recommend:

Roth: Operation Shylock
Updike: Obama's favorite book by him, The Coup, mostly because I think the intellectual exercise of imagining Obama reading and enjoying this flawed and unique book is fun.
Cheever: A random assortment of his short stories
Bellow: Herzog
Yates: I guess Revolutionary Road, just to know what people are referring to when they bring it up far too often. Though, he's really not that great.
Stone: Children of Light
McGuane: The Bushwhacked Piano
Harrison: A Good Day to Die

Harrison did something really interesting towards the end of his life that I hope to see people address in upcoming years. He had a running character who was problematic in ways that seemed like they were being presented as lovable and quirky. In one of his last novellas, he had that character do something that wasn't that different than what he had been doing the whole time, but it was worse and was about to ruin his life, so he committed suicide. And that was it. It almost seemed like he was repudiating himself as an author and the perspective that people felt that he had.
posted by bootlegpop at 10:10 PM on October 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


I am perpetually in awe of Lockwood's use of language.
posted by HunterFelt at 1:24 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


Her writing is very good - you don't have to get very far down the page to start getting some absolute all-stars.

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.

Or one of the finest sophisticated-as-fuck jokes I've read in years:

Due to certain quirks in my upbringing, I love men easily, which is either Christly or some slut thing.
posted by Merus at 1:50 AM on October 3, 2019 [23 favorites]


OMFG

" They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God."


this lady can wwwwwwrriiiitttte.
posted by lalochezia at 3:02 AM on October 3, 2019 [11 favorites]


There's so many bangers throughout. The DFW elements are wonderful but the piece is full of 'em.

"Why is it so tempting to grade him on a curve? He is so attended by the shine of a high-school star, standing in a spotlight that insists on his loveability, that presents him as a great gold cup into which forgiveness must be poured. It extended even to me: as I underlined passages and wrote ‘what the … WHAT’ next to paragraphs, I felt him sad in the clouds on my shoulder, baffled, as if he had especially been hoping that I would get it."

This though feels like one of the more significant takeaways about Updike's relevance or place in American letters.

A better question might be why nothing sticks to him. [...] Colm Tóibín, in a 2009 interview with Bookslut, expressed a belief that Updike’s homophobia would eventually eat into his critical reputation. [...] The same could be said of his racism or misogyny or his burning need to commit to print lines like ‘Horny, Jews are.’ But nothing of the sort has really happened. This may be because, beyond his early work, he is not actually being read.

Having a body of work which is read largely as recordings of (a very narrow slice of) American life feels like it something of a death sentence in itself, apart from the weird shittiness Lockwood identifies in Updike.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 3:09 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


... Wow.

Basically skewers everything that is misdirected and wrong with 20th century white male American literature by scrutinising a single author.

And most of what is wrong is that the author in question is held up as an object of emulation (and his works as set texts on literature courses) rather than subjected to any kind of nuanced criticism.

But?

Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beerbellies after thirty.’ It me. It so me. Ouch.
posted by cstross at 4:57 AM on October 3, 2019 [9 favorites]


There are many good quotes, but this quote, which someone also quoted above, is probably the best description of Updike that I have ever read. It is even gentle in its dismissal:

They continue to be speedily readable – the present tense works on Updike the way boutique transfusions of young blood work on billionaires – and perfectly replicate the experience of eating a hot dog in quasi-wartime on a lush crew-cut lawn that has been invisibly poisoned by industry, while men argue politics in the background and a Nice Ass lurks somewhere on the horizon, like the presence of God.

---

I'm not sure if I am the only one, but I get a paywall for the article. I was able to read it (sans paragraph breaks) through the source code, though.
posted by bootlegpop at 5:42 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Writers are not scholars but athletes, who grow beerbellies after thirty.

Ironically, in the US, the age distribution of authors is skewed towards the 60+ demographic, as in the absence of a safety net, many people only get to think about writing once they're drawing a pension.
posted by acb at 5:44 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Cheever: A random assortment of his short stories

I read such a book in high school. I kinda loved it! I don't move in literary circles or anything, but I feel like I've seen Cheever's name written more times in this thread now than I have in the intervening thirty years.
posted by fleacircus at 6:00 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


I have no knowledge of Updike. My father had all his books and I remember, as a pre-teen, reading the back of Rabbit Redux and being like "uh...no". But I just came here to join in the chorus of praise for Patricia Lockwood. She is such a wonderful writer I would read an entire book of her reviews of authors I have no interest in and books I will never read.
posted by unicorn chaser at 6:31 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


acb: actually, speaking from observation, it's really rare for an author to produce publishable novels before their mid-thirties. (Short fiction: less rare.) The ones who do are youthful prodigies, because you really need a bundle of life experience before you can write convincing characters.

But I guess I just parsed that sentence differently from you. (It all depends on the punctuation: athletes grow beerbellies after thirty is the subordinate clause. (And why am I even bothering? (Aaagh, English would work so much better if it followed Lisp grammar!)))
posted by cstross at 6:59 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


In my young adulthood, I read the Rabbit series, though the later ones more for completionism than pleasure. I don't remember much, but this line from Rabbit at Rest stuck: "That strange way women have, of really caring about somebody beyond themselves." It's hard to condemn Rabbit (and men) more than Updike did himself.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:10 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


I read Witches of Eastwick as a teen and was mostly just baffled by it. Who were these women, why were they so unlikable, why was I reading about them? I just picked it up because it said "witches" and I thought I was in for a fun spooky time, not a bunch of small bitter people angsting over the fact that their daughters are hotter than them and giving people cancer for kicks.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:19 AM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]



I read Witches of Eastwick as a teen and was mostly just baffled by it. Who were these women, why were they so unlikable, why was I reading about them? I just picked it up because it said "witches" and I thought I was in for a fun spooky time, not a bunch of small bitter people angsting over the fact that their daughters are hotter than them and giving people cancer for kicks.


More than anything, what I associate with the penis-thesaurus writers is bitterness, a feeling of being trapped. Fear of aging, fear of "failure", fear that "this" is all there is. I don't like to read their work because it scares me to think of turning into that kind of person; it seems like the worst fate in the world. They're not just writers about spite and resentment; they're men who were ridden by spite and resentment and assumed that those things ruled the world, that because they desperately resented younger women who wouldn't fuck them or younger women who fucked them but didn't care deeply for them, then women themselves resent younger women on their behalf; that because they valued women primarily as novelty fucks and care machines, women valued themselves that way too.

I mean, there are misogynist writers that I'll still read; there are writers I read who do not, let us say, have deep insight into women. It's the resentment and spite that get me, the sense that no matter how good you have it, you can never be anything but a resentful person stuck in your own head.
posted by Frowner at 8:27 AM on October 3, 2019 [15 favorites]


Fuck Updike and fuck the The New Yorker for printing his review (in 1999!) of an Alan Hollinghurst novel in which Updike said that gay lives weren't worth writing about because gay people didn't procreate. Wrong on multiple accounts, jackass.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:31 AM on October 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


On that note - wouldn't you back The Swimming Pool Library against any of these guys? What a brilliant book on every level! Come to that, if you're looking for extremely readable social novels that are very well observed but sometimes just a thought thin, you could do worse than maybe The Sparsholt Affair (which I liked; certain parts really stayed with me, but it doesn't to me have the cohesiveness and power of SPL or Line of Beauty)
posted by Frowner at 8:43 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Like, Swimming Pool Library has so much to say about classism and racism and how they intertwine with gay life. The hero is a deeply flawed and self-deluding person who is in some ways pretty unappealing but also kind of a tragic figure. Even though he doesn't understand the people around him (and that's a big part of his tragedy) the book itself gestures toward their interiority and makes them real. It's just such a good book, easily one of my favorite modern novels.
posted by Frowner at 8:45 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


Cheever is one of the great diarists in English, and I think a much better writer than most of who we are talking about, with the possible exception of Bellow, but I like this shorter, angrier, late novels the most.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:55 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


> I read Witches of Eastwick as a teen and was mostly just baffled by it. Who were these women, why were they so unlikable, why was I reading about them? I just picked it up because it said "witches" and I thought I was in for a fun spooky time, not a bunch of small bitter people angsting over the fact that their daughters are hotter than them and giving people cancer for kicks.

This was precisely my experience reading it--the cover was cool! It was about witches! It... was about bitter jealous witches who, when their devilish (wink wink) lover leaves them for a younger, prettier woman (a woman they all supposedly liked and were friendly with), their response was to... hex the younger woman with uterine cancer?

Wikipedia tells me this is considered a pro-feminist Updike novel. By who?? I do not think they know what the word means.
posted by lovecrafty at 9:06 AM on October 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


“His drug writing is cop-level bad.”
posted by The Whelk at 9:27 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Lockwood’s opening alone is worth it: “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. ‘Absolutely not,’ I said when first approached, because I knew I would try to read everything, and fail, and spend days trying to write an adequate description of his nostrils, and all I would be left with after months of standing tiptoe on the balance beam of objectivity and fair assessment would be a letter to the editor from some guy named Norbert accusing me of cutting off a great man’s dong in print. But then the editors cornered me drunk at a party, and here we are.“
posted by Doktor Zed at 10:49 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Updike said that gay lives weren't worth writing about because gay people didn't procreate.

Updike didn't say that. What he did write in his review (of The Spell, which included both praise and criticism of the book) was: "Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family." (To which I'd say, not most novels about heterosexual partnering.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:01 AM on October 3, 2019


So, yes. He did say that.
posted by The Bellman at 11:14 AM on October 3, 2019 [8 favorites]


Updike didn't say that. What he did write in his review (of The Spell, which included both praise and criticism of the book) was: "Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family." (To which I'd say, not most novels about heterosexual partnering.)

But when you read the whole passage, it's pretty clear that he's not just describing what he thinks Hollinghurst says but rather some kind of "gay lives are full of ennui and emptiness because of the nature of homosexuality", as is apparent in his last line: "Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society's circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the lonely human condition with a special bleakness: he must take it straight". Which is pretty much exactly what a misanthropic straight man who believes the world ruled by his own bitterness and resentment would think a gay guy would feel.

Also, even at the time many gay men had children; also, were I a child related to Updike I would not feel precisely encouraged in my relationship with him by this passage - the human condition is lonely tout court and if society doesn't make you have kids, you don't have them or have any real purpose; even straight people don't authentically want children.
posted by Frowner at 11:15 AM on October 3, 2019 [6 favorites]


I discovered Updike in high school (mid-70s) and read him voraciously for awhile. I enjoyed seeing his powers of observation in action, and the way he could just pile on the details until achieving something transcendent in its awful specificity. In college, I once ate dinner with him—long story—and he was funny, curious and kind... and exceedingly correct. He had a gaze that was alternatively penetrating and mirthful.

As I grew older, I became increasingly bothered by the issues Lockwood details so well and stopped reading him completely. That said, being enthralled by him (and others discussed above as well, particularly DFW) was an important phase in my development as a writer, reader and person. No ragrets.
posted by carmicha at 11:18 AM on October 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


Janice moves out in a cloud of pink self-actualisation, and Rabbit, understandably, invites a barely legal flower child called Jill and a self-appointed black Messiah called Skeeter to live with him. He doesn’t want to fuck Jill at first, but soon, like magic, ‘small curdled puddles of his semen … appear on her skin, and though easily wiped away leave in his imagination a mark like an acid-burn on her shoulders, her throat, the small of her back; he has the vision of her entire slender fair flexible body being eventually covered with these invisible burns.’ If you were worried that somewhere in this sweeping tetralogy Rabbit wasn’t going to ejaculate all over a teenager and then compare the results to a napalmed child, you can rest easy.

I don't know who Patricia Lockwood is, but having read this piece -- or actually about half of it and I'm gleeful there's another half to go -- I am damn sure going to find out. This is magnificent writing.
posted by The Bellman at 11:19 AM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


Further on " "Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society's circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the lonely human condition with a special bleakness: he must take it straight":

What I notice is that he can't write about gay people as people in their own right; he has to turn them into some kind of symbol that tells straight people about themselves. Gay lives aren't lived for themselves; they exist to reveal what straight people get by being straight.

This is basically his approach to writing about women; you only write about women to illuminate male experience.
posted by Frowner at 11:25 AM on October 3, 2019 [14 favorites]


Patricia Lockwood on the Blue, previously.

Particularly Rape Joke
posted by Gorgik at 11:35 AM on October 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


oh shit, she wrote Rape Joke!? Oh my God, why did I not glom on and obsessively read everything she's written since thing, I am ashamed of my personal failings.

(I loved this essay so, so much. It was a struggle to not just...paste all of it to Twitter, accompanied by my flailings.)

I think rather like others, I am now relieved of any vague desire I had to read Updike. I have read a collection of his essays on fine art. It was fine? I mean, nothing about it betrayed that he didn't understand how women pee, so I suppose I got off easy.

(I am still kind of curious to read Cheever and Bellow, and am grateful for the recommendations in this thread.)
posted by kalimac at 12:03 PM on October 3, 2019 [1 favorite]


Between this article and the cat tweet, I now want to read every word Patricia Lockwood has ever written. Maybe it'll make up for all that time I wasted reading Philip Roth.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:27 PM on October 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


I stumbled on to this essay yesterday and it was an absolute delight. I giggled a lot and immediately mailed the link to several folks. I assume it was due to this piece that I saw this bit of Updike-related silliness on twitter today.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:47 PM on October 3, 2019


I liked what carnicha said "his powers of observation in action, and the way he could just pile on the details until achieving something transcendent in its awful specificity"

Yes, Updike had many flaws as a human being and some as a writer. He may well be overrated compared to other not-white-male writers. But he does have a distinctive prose style which can be fascinating to read and can absolutely pull you into a specific place and give you an intimate view of his characters.

We always seem to fall into a particular call and response: "Creator X is problematic / Haha good thing they sucked anyway". But there are differences between John Updike and, say, Piers Anthony.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 2:46 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


> I'm not sure if I am the only one, but I get a paywall for the article. I was able to read it (sans paragraph breaks) through the source code, though.

Reader mode in Firefox works, too.
posted by nnethercote at 4:59 AM on October 4, 2019


I don't know who Patricia Lockwood is, but having read this piece -- or actually about half of it and I'm gleeful there's another half to go -- I am damn sure going to find out.

Go read Priestdaddy, right now!
posted by nnethercote at 5:03 AM on October 4, 2019 [1 favorite]


We always seem to fall into a particular call and response: "Creator X is problematic / Haha good thing they sucked anyway". But there are differences between John Updike and, say, Piers Anthony.

I think, though, that for writers who are very concerned with style, there's a connection between content and style - and the disillusion with the content tends to go along with disillusion with the style. It's true that this isn't the same as a style being bad.

Like, I just keep returning to this damnable sentence because it encapsulates so much that I dislike in Updike and indeed in many of the big male writers of his generation:

"Perhaps the male homosexual, uncushioned as he is by society's circumambient encouragements to breed, feels the lonely human condition with a special bleakness: he must take it straight"

It's pompous and magisterial, for one thing. "Perhaps"...well, we're meant to understand that he isn't really speculating; Updike doesn't need to speculate, he knows. "The male homosexual" - none of this truck with modern slang like "gay men". "The male homosexual" - a type, anatomized by the author, who sits outside of time and society - analyzing, analyzing. "Circumambient encouragements" - some people might see in this some sort of precision. And "he must take it straight" - a magisterial pun! "The" homosexual makes another appearance. As befits "the" homosexual, he must take "it" - no choice there - and he must take it straight - even the f*gs can't escape the force of Updike's heterosexual analysis.

And you get variants in Tom Wolf, Harlan Ellison, Gore Vidal, Mailer - lots more if I were to go back and sort through all my books. Harold Bloom. It's a pushy, pompous, self-important style that draws attention to itself, but not in an interesting or challenging way. It's a style that positions the writer outside of what he observes. Maybe he'll make a few wry little asides about how he's flawed, women unlike him can care for others outside themselves,etc etc, but these aren't serious reflections. They're deflections, so that we know not to expect him to care, be aware of his own feelings, express self-doubt, etc.

It's super individualistic. Like, I can think of 19th century essayists who talk down and anatomize, but at least they have the grace attribute their snobbery to group membership, not their individual genius.

You only get the Updikean style from the Updikean perspective.

Consider, by contrast, problematic fave George Orwell - he describes and analyzes a lot of stuff, he has a system, he is pretty confident in writing about people from the outside ("why are the women of the left always ugly", he asks. I don't know, George, you aren't exactly Young Stalin In A Bandanna yourself.) And yet the pompous magisterial wordplay, the distance, the lack of self doubt aren't there.

~~
Granted there's a modern prose style that drives me absolutely up the fucking wall (the jokey distancing one with the constant self-undercutting and the jolly use of internet slang to show that the writer, like the Joker, understands that self-seriousness is bad). And that one totally derives from the contemporary super neurotic internet-driven perspective, the whole too many mirrors thing. It's fatiguing, and I look forward to the revolution so that we can get a better style.
posted by Frowner at 6:57 AM on October 4, 2019 [12 favorites]


Oh, and you know what I really hate about that sentence? That there's a sort of fake-distancing-ironic quality to it that still manages to be magisterial and pompous. Like there's a little hint of regret and sadness - about the human condition and all - but it's so sterile and we're supposed to be so impressed with Updike's extremely intelligent perspective that it's still horrible.

I don't mind tortured artists if they're actually tortured, I guess is what I'm saying. It's the "the human condition is so sad and I am so burdened by my superior awareness of the sadness that my otherwise cushy life is very melancholy" bit that gets me down.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 AM on October 4, 2019 [3 favorites]


Yes, Updike had many flaws as a human being and some as a writer. He may well be overrated compared to other not-white-male writers. But he does have a distinctive prose style which can be fascinating to read and can absolutely pull you into a specific place and give you an intimate view of his characters.

Here's the thing, though (putting aside specific literary criticisms like Frowner's above, which I co-sign). This guy was, at least in the short term, canonized. He is, or was (more and more), considered one of the great American novelists. He got the jobs, the speaking engagements, the awards, the spots in the English-lit curriculum that only have so many spots. Achieving this required the exclusion of a lot better and more interesting writers in considerable part because they didn't fit his demographic and so didn't get the start-to-finish encouragement and support he received. "He has a distinctive prose style that can be fascinating to read" is a pretty weak justification of all that. Attacks on his writing are, and should be, both attacks on it in itself and attacks on it as the work of an author held up for extraordinary recognition and reward. He doesn't exist in a vacuum and he didn't try to.
posted by praemunire at 8:37 AM on October 4, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if I am the only one, but I get a paywall for the article. I was able to read it (sans paragraph breaks) through the source code, though.

I got -- what I thought was an email registration requirement, which I bailed out on, but when I later went to the site, thinking, it's just an email, and was ready to put my gmail in, there wasn't any pop-over asking me. Which I guess means -- as always -- mileage varies.

It says a lot by y'all's commentary that I was willing to give up my email to read it in the first place.
posted by mikelieman at 8:39 AM on October 4, 2019


But there are differences between John Updike and, say, Piers Anthony.

Piers Anthony wrote a couple pretty hilarious short stories about alien dentistry, whereas Updike is irretrievably long-winded and tedious?
posted by aspersioncast at 11:26 AM on October 4, 2019


It says a lot by y'all's commentary that I was willing to give up my email to read it in the first place.

I signed up as cum@cumbo.biz
posted by Greg Nog at 1:44 PM on October 6, 2019


Of course he wrote words and sentences that are offensive. But that kind of reminds me of a Sunday School teacher's objections to literature. Bad words, bad acts, not a moral story, etc.

Those are really political or moral arguments, not literary or aesthetic arguments.

Of course we need political and moral guidance from people who can teach us how to treat each other better.

But those arguments will always misunderstand literature and art. I mean, look at the dozens of Updike books still in print these decades later. He'll be read long after any criticism of his morals.
posted by hiagain at 2:23 PM on October 10, 2019


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