Thursday, February 05, 2009

John Updike Made Me Do It

It’s one of life’s many ironies that we earn the most praise for our deeds after we’re dead. This is particularly true of writers. Since John Updike’s death from lung cancer at 76 on January 27th, his books have been topping the charts at Amazon, which, no doubt was not the case on January 26th.

John Updike is undoubtedly one of the best-known American writers of the later twentieth-century, a member of the coveted New Yorker “first-read contract” elite. What he is perhaps best known for is writing about sex. Updike managed to write a lot of sex--sell millions of paperbacks in airports and drugstores to non-literary readers--and yet still maintain his standing of artistic respectability.

At the X: The Erotic Treasury reading at Books Inc. last Thursday, Susie Bright said that John Updike influenced the way we write erotica today. I know he influenced me, although in complex ways. My parents’ copies of Couples and the Rabbit Books were indeed some of my first exposures to erotic scenes (The Godfather being the very first, of course). And Updike was inarguably a master of prose. Andrew Sullivan wrote recently: “I do not recall ever reading a bad Updike sentence.” I agree.

But I have read Updike passages and stories that rubbed me very much the wrong way. The “wrong” part was never the style, but rather the point of view, specifically the honest POV of a white male born in the 1930s.

I can’t tell you how glad I am to be part of MY generation instead. Our moms had it tough and it’s not just John Updike who harbored the sexist, belittling attitude toward women. You can see this in “Mad Men,” and in countless grandpas still holding the standard of the Greatest Generation. A number of them have told me I'm a bad writer--for some reason, I've gotten my nastiest criticism from old guys, many of whom have just started writing themselves. The first few times I was devastated, but I'm getting better at dealing with the WWII crowd.

But I digress. For a while there I would get really pissed at Updike’s male protagonists, their arrogance, their supposed celebration of female sexuality but only if the woman was compliant and bovine. Intellectual women were strident, neurotic, punished with diseases and divorce. I kept wondering if John Updike were writing as himself (Joyce Carol Oates famously called Rabbit Angstrom “John Updike without the talent.”) Eventually though I decided it didn’t matter if the annoyingly retro male narrators were actually Updike or not. He was giving me an honest portrait of an elite, suburban American male of the mid-twentieth century. I didn’t have to like him or agree with him, but it was interesting to get a glimpse into his view of the world. And with publications in The New Yorker and Playboy, he was certainly part of our culture's collective imagination.

When the call for Jolie du Pre’s Swing!: Adventures in Swinging by Today’s Top Erotica Writers went out last summer, I knew I wanted to work with her, but I wasn’t exactly an expert on the topic. However, I did have a wealth of memories of John Updike’s fiction and memoirs that lay glittering in my brain like unmined treasure. And so I turned to his work as inspiration for my story, “John Updike Made Me Do It,” just as my protagonist channels him to inspire her own experiment in partner swapping. You can read an excerpt at Jolie’s Swing! blog, in honor of John Updike and his literary legacy "King of Sex and Suburbia" (and compare my prose to Updike’s scene which won him a “Bad Sex in Fiction Award.” I’d be worried I might suffer by comparison, but I think you have to be famous to be considered for that honor.)

Swing! is coming out soon and has a wonderful list of contributors, including Neve Black, M. Christian, Jolie du Pre, Jeremy Edwards, Emerald, Ashley Lister, and Sage Vivant among others. I can’t wait to read the stories! No doubt they will enrich my sense of possibility beyond the realm of Updike. For indeed although a writer of his stature may achieve immortality, death brings inevitable limitations to a vision rooted firmly in the past.


Neve Black said...

Hi Donna,
John Updike's passing is loss for us all. I remember reading him for the first time and I was too young to understand the sex (yeah, I know, that does sound crazy, doesn't?). I decided to re-read his work again after I was a little older and I remember thinking, "boy this guy really gets it..." I have my own favorite passages from his Rabbit series. Poignant and dead-on.

Thank you for the shout out. I appreciate that. :-0

Donna said...

Thanks for your comment, Neve. Yep, he "gets" sex in America, the shame and repression, the yearning, the thrill of the forbidden, the power of fantasy.

I'm really looking forward to this anthology. It's full of wonderful sex writers of new generations!

GLBT Promo said...

Hi Donna,

You have to understand that your writing speaks for itself. Obviously, it's not BAD writing. Anyone can see that your excerpt, posted at my blog, is good writing. As for Updike, like I said before, there is no such thing as bad press. A "Bad Sex" award from the Literary Review ain't all that bad.

Anonymous said...

Such a lovely and interesting post, Donna -- thanks for this. And I loved your excerpt at the Swing! website. I much look forward to reading your story. :)

Jeremy Edwards said...

It's very inspiring, Donna, how you glean from Updike what's valuable to you while keeping perspective on where his work is at odds with your own worldview. I think your "JU Made Me Do It" story concept is a perfect tribute to the power of literature to reach us from another place—and our power to accept from it what works for us, and leave the rest behind.

None of them seemed to need John Updike’s help, although no doubt they had his blessing.


Donna said...

Well, Jolie, in reading those Bad Sex scenes, it did strike me that sometimes the line between bad and good is wafer thin! And also taken out of context a scene might seem ridiculous when a reader following the whole story would be carried along in the emotion of the characters. One of the many ways erotica writers are put down is by people laughing at our work (not "with," "at"!) It might be easy for us to see this as their own discomfort, but still public humiliation isn't something most writers seek. Although sure, any press is good press, lol.

But thanks for the reassurances. I do hope my writing speaks for itself.

Donna said...

Hey, Emerald and Jeremy, we'll have to have a virtual hot tub party when the book comes out to celebrate!

Jeremy, I do appreciate your comment. Part of what's going on is that the literary world says "Updike is great, he speaks for America" and he didn't speak for me, so I had to wrestle with my desire to be part of the literati who share certain opinions of the Canon versus every other part of me screaming that this isn't MY reality, it's HIS reality. Maybe that's why old guys don't like my work, we're just at odds, but they haven't ever had to put it in perspective.

All this said, I really admire John Updike as a writer and many of his scenes are lodged forever in my personal fantasy factory :-).

Alana Noel Voth said...

Updike. I've read one thing. "A & P" and it's a model short story for any writer who writes short fiction. I have a couple of his novels and haven't read them. See, Updike and I parted ways long time ago. Something to do with his demoralizing attitude toward up-and-coming writers. With that said, I did appreciate his disdain for blogging. His opinion continues to haunt me every time I create then murder another blog, because he had a point.

I think that's cool, Donna, how you responded to Updike's work via your own. T.S. Elliot's literary tradition! One day, another writer will repsond to you. The word lives on!


Donna said...

Thanks so much for stopping by, Alana! Hmm, that would be amusing if someone "responds" to my work some day. Updike was a writer of the old school and his almost immediate publication at The New Yorker fresh out of college gave him a skewed vision of the writing life, no doubt!

But the rest of us don't have to play by those rules. Sure, it's muddy down here in the peasant fields, but the real winner is any writer who refuses to be silenced!

Anonymous said...

Goodness, just the conversation going on in this comments section strikes me as richly fascinating. I loved Jeremy's comment -- marvelously expressed! -- as well as this comment, Donna:

"Part of what's going on is that the literary world says 'Updike is great, he speaks for America' and he didn't speak for me, so I had to wrestle with my desire to be part of the literati who share certain opinions of the Canon versus every other part of me screaming that this isn't MY reality, it's HIS reality."

I find both comments strikingly interesting and filled with concise thoughtfulnes. Thank you!

Donna said...

Thank you as always, Emerald. We'll have to talk more about this in the hot tub!