Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The sensation caused by the publication of Couples in 1968 not only placed the novel on The New York Times’ best-seller list for a number of weeks but also promoted Updike into the ranks of the popular writers. His name, somewhat restricted to the serious reader, became widely known to the broader book-reading public. The reviews, predictably enough, reflected the critics’ sense of lost proprietorship and complained loudly that Updike had sold out to the meretricious contemporary mass cult. The novel was too sexy and too sensational to be considered a serious work of fiction. It was a large book (450 pages), if not the large book which the reviewers had expected of Updike and had chided him for not writing, but subsequent readings of the novel, removed from the hysteria of the period, have revealed depths overlooked in the initial responses. Few critics now would describe the book as cheap and trashy and a waste of Updike’s considerable literary talent. The novel not only provided Updike with financial security but also reflected a sense of historical presence which was new in his longer fiction. The explicit treatment of the subject of sex was a reflection of the times as well and cleared the way for other “serious” novelists to take advantage of the new permissiveness. Whether Couples will ultimately be adjudged one of Updike’s best novels remains to be seen; that it is a challenging and provocative novel, one which engages the mind as well as the senses, cannot be denied.