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.