Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

Begley: UPDIKE

Random Notes on Adam Begley’s UPDIKE – Part 1

Adam Begley’s forthcoming biography UPDIKE strikes the perfect balance between specialized scholarship and general reading pleasure – both the aficionado and the casual fan can read it with great profit and enjoyment.  Below are some notes about points I found particularly interesting, with a few more to follow soon.


In 1951 the critic John W. Aldridge published After the Lost Generation, a survey of some writers who were, at the time, up and coming.  I’m going to quote a representative passage here, chosen at random, about Merle Miller:
But the thing which is by far Miller’s gravest limitation is his lack of seriousness,
his tone of mockery and simulation, which gives to everything he writes a touch of phoniness.  It is as if he were perpetually belittling his function as a writer while performing the act of writing, perpetually struggling to hide his scorn for his characters at the very moment of creating them.  Or perhaps it is simply that he is too completely committed to their world, to their slick-magazine values, their cocktail-lounge philosophy, and their tepid, passionless little intrigues, to be able to rise above them and give them a stature and a significance which they do not possess.

            Aldridge was a pugnacious blowhard who made a career out of nastiness.  Consult not only the above but also this passage from his 1992 book Talents and Technicians:
            The novels of Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis, for example, are by any serious critical measure artistically empty works that are best-sellers largely because they depict a spiritually empty world that is attractive to readers who are themselves spiritually empty and so in reading them experience a faint twinge of self-recognition.

            This type of loudmouth bravado is clearly written merely to get attention; Aldridge was a sort of literary Miley Cyrus.  It’s quite surprising, therefore, to read in Begley’s biography that Aldridge’s unforgivably malicious review of Of the Farm upset Updike.  Aldridge complained that Updike had “nothing to say”, a remark that many other critics at various times echoed – Norman Podhoretz, Gore Vidal, Harold Bloom, Dorothy Rabinowitz.  (Begley leaves out Leslie Fielder, who wrote that Updike writes “essentially nineteenth century novels” and is “irrelevant”.)  Begley writes that this review hurried Updike into expanding the subject matter of his fiction well beyond his immediate personal experience, something which he had tentatively begun to do anyway.  Aldridge pushed him.
            I have a couple of observations about this.  First, if the charge is that you have nothing to say, and you immediately, as a consequence, try to start saying things, then you’re giving validity to the criticism – you’re trying to correct the perceived fault.  But is style without substance necessarily a negative?  I would argue that, if the style is grand enough, it is not.  Beautiful writing is a sufficient and worthy end unto itself – and Updike’s writing certainly passes this test.
            Secondly – “nothing to say” about what, exactly?  The proverbial human condition?  Philosophy?  Religion?  Science?  Psychology?  Sociology?  Politics?  Love, romance, relationships?  It seems to me to be a dubious requirement - that a producer of literature should have something to say in the manner Aldridge seems to be suggesting.  The percentage of novelists, poets, dramatists, or essayists who have anything completely original to say about these subjects must be very low – everything has been said before, is just a variant of something else.  A philosopher like Wittgenstein, an artist like Duchamp, a psychologist like Freud – people like this come along once every thousand years – never mind a Shakespeare!  And so the accusation of “nothing to say” sounds a trifle disingenuous to me.
            I think Begley’s bringing this state of affairs to our attention, and the way he does so, are both excellent.

            Begley devotes one paragraph to the only major Hollywood studio release based on Updike’s fiction, The Witches of Eastwick.  What?! No juicy tale of “Updike in Hollywood”?  He mentions Updike and his wife got to see the picture by sneaking into an afternoon showing at the mall…again, what?!  What’s the story behind that?  I would have loved some reporting on how Updike felt about  what George Miller and Michael Cristofer did with his story.  The picture was produced by some real Hollywood heavyweights – being that Updike never had an agent, who pitched this story to them?  Or was it the case someone among the producers was a fan of the book, and thus  initiated the project?  Jack Nicholson would have the power to get any movie made that he wanted to – was he involved somehow?  Did Updike ever meet any of the cast and crew?  And so on and so on.  This was a singularly unique event in Updike’s life and career – I would have enjoyed a little more on this subject. 
                               The importance of this perhaps lies in the fact that most of Updike's fiction is, in the sense of classical Hollywood cinema, unfilmable.  Maybe a director such as Antonioni or Eric Rohmer could have done something with it.


            I’ve always thought Marry Me was a bizarre novel, definitely not one of Updike’s best, quite a step down from the novels and stories that preceded it.  Someone once said of Robert Gover that his second novel was “like a fumbling and amateurish first attempt, something dug out of the trunk to follow up a success”.  While I wouldn’t quite go that far in this case, when Begley’s bio revealed to me that Marry Me was actually written years before it was published, this was an epiphany that in retrospect made perfect sense.

It is, like much of Updike’s fiction, a thinly disguised account of actual events – in this case, his affair with Joyce Harrington.  To me, Begley’s account of this situation alone would make his book worth reading, but it leads into another area – one that I’m sure  future biographers of Updike will dive into with much gusto:  Begley’s decision to let Updike’s many lovers remain anonymous, with two exceptions – the aforementioned Harrington and Martha Bernhard, who eventually became his second wife.  He also  chooses to let the Ipswich, Mass. couples who were the models for the Tarbox couples in Couples remain anonymous.  Begley writes that he let the lovers remain unnamed in order to protect their privacy and, also, in order to encourage them to tell him about their encounters with Updike.  However, there isn’t very much in the book in the way of these encounters at all, a curious turn of events.  In any case, I’m willing to bet that future generations of Updike fans and researchers will want to puncture all this anonymity, whether justifiably or not.  It just seems like too broad an avenue of potentially important research.


  1. "...too broad an avenue of potentially important research"? Certainly this allegedly important research can wait until the possible real-life models, if any, have been allowed to depart this world unsullied by the salacious curiosity of rubbernecking lit-crit types, can it not? One of the few privileges a writer has when labeling his work "fiction" is to be spared the assumption that everything in the book is autobiographical. And tagging each episode and incident in the work as reflective of a provable (or plausible) real-life antecedent seems to me to be more in the line of gossip than criticism.

  2. What are we to make of these appearances of signs in the novels? For one thing, Updike is obviously including them in these fictions as part of his desire to present real slices of life from late twentieth century American society – what it is/was like to live in this time, in this place

  3. We seek originality in new presentations of Shakespeare (I suppose) in order to confirm our belief that, somehow, there is more flexibility built into his plays than into the work of most other dramatists. So when we see Lady Macbeth take a chocolate cake out of a refrigerator to serve it to Duncan, or see Macbeth blow a kiss at Ross after scolding him at dinner, we allow ourselves both a smile and a period of reflection.