Unraveling the timeless appeal of John Updike

John Updike once said “The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.”

That is, in beautiful summary, what I have always admired most about Updike: his bigness, his presence, the intangible quality in him that makes him a Writer, that makes him THE Writer, the kind of writer everyone has heard of, the one whose name you can bring up at a party and people who have never read one thing he wrote will still nod their heads knowingly and say, “Oh yes, John Updike. The writer.”

Updike, who would have been 79 today, is a fascinating part of America’s literary history. He is probably best known for his Rabbit series. His books Rabbit is Rich (1981) and Rabbit at Rest (1990) both won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He is one of only three authors to win the Pulitzer more than once.

He published more than 20 novels and more than a dozen short story collections. He also wrote poetry, art criticism, literary criticism, and children’s books. Like many American writers, he spent much of his early career writing for The New Yorker.

But unlike many noted American writers of his generation, including the arrogant touch-me-not Philip Roth and the reclusive J.D. Salinger, Updike always affected me as down to earth.

His prose style has been compared – favorably – to Proust and Nabakov. In addition to the Pulitzer, he won the PEN/Faulkner Award, two National Book Awards, three National Book Critics Circle Awards, the National Medal of Arts, the National Humanities Medal, and in 2008, a year before his death, the National Endowment for the Humanities selected Updike to present the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. government’s highest humanities honor.

Yet he wrote of the dissolution of his first marriage with frank openness. He was a champion of young writers. In 2000, he played himself on The Simpsons’ episode “Insane Clown Poppy,” in which he was the ghost writer of Krusty the Clown’s book. When a writer of the caliber of Updike is willing to show his soft underbelly, to laugh at himself, I fall in love.

I’ve often had other female writers give me the raised eyebrow when I enthuse about Updike. Many women consider him unforgivably misogynistic. It’s true he was once asked by an interviewer how he wrote women so well and he responded “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” In 2008, he took it on the chin for writing an unfavorable review of Toni Morrison’s novel A Mercy. His frequent writings about sex and sensuality often led to criticisms of the way he portrayed women.

But I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those writers who draws gender lines in the sand. If Updike disparaged women sometimes, meh. So what. Feminist writers often disparage men. It’s called free speech and it goes both ways. Get over it. We wanted equality, and guess what? We’ve got it. And incidentally, Updike’s 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick was his way of trying to make nice with his female detractors.

In literary circles, John Updike is controversial. He rarely elicits the response of “Oh, he was all right.” He’s been criticized and demonized and aggrandized and ostracized and idolized and scrutinized and lionized and simonized and pasteurized. But regardless of your feelings about Updike, his place in literary history is secure. In his poem “Perfection Wasted,” Updike wrote “Another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic.” Yet he used his gift with words to ensure that, love him or loathe him, his magic will never die.