Updike at rest

I can’t say I have much of a strong response to news of the passing of John Updike. To me, his most admirable quality was his relentless productivity, but even that had its flip side. For quite some time, my reaction to any new Updike title was not “Gee, better make time for that one” but, “Huh, a new Updike, has it been a year already?”  

The last time he wowed me was in 1986 with Roger’s Version, a novel about the conflict between faith and science — and, of course, adultery — that gave each side its due, and showcased some impressive authorial knowledge (and research) along the way.

His 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lilies was hailed as some kind of masterpiece, but I found it practically unreadable — thoroughly grounded research studded with vaguely imagined characters in what was supposed to be a grand historical epic. Many of his later books, such as Brazil or Terrorist, came across as resume-fluffers — novels intended to show off Updike’s continued relevance and artistic vitality, yet proving the opposite.  

I much preferred Updike’s nonfiction essays and reviews, where his affinity for research meshed perfectly with his graceful writing. Updike wore his erudition most lightly when he was reviewing other novels, rather than writing his own. But the “Rabbit” novels and the scandalous early successes like Couples never did much for me, and I’d have to say that of all the big-time 20th century American novelists, Updike had the least impact on me, either emotional or literary.

ADDENDUM: Lance Mannion has more to say on this.

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3 thoughts on “Updike at rest

  1. I never understood why he persisted in writing novels. He didn’t have the knack, he must have known the bad ones were bad, and after a point he didn’t need the money. Maybe a biographer will explain it. His short stories and his essays and the Rabbit books—at least Rabbit Run and Rabbit Is Rich—will serve to keep his place in literary history. As I wrote over at my place, I never felt as personally connected to Updike’s writing as I have with other writers, but he was important to me. He figured mightily in my education as a writer and a reader.

  2. coffee says:

    John Updike’s passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. “Immortality is nontransferrable” he said appropriately.

  3. […] ridicule, so I guess we can simply chuckle at the continuing cluelessness of it all.   I’m on record as being ambivalent about Updike’s work: I admire Roger’s Version and some of the other novels, but generally prefer the nonfiction […]

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