When he died in January, 2009, at the age of seventy-six, John Updike was generally acknowledged to be the preeminent American man of letters of the second half of the twentieth century. In retrospect, his productivity and versatility were already emerging by the time Couples appeared. Between settling with his young family in Ipswich, Massachusetts (the model for his fictional Tarbox), in 1957 and publishing Couples in 1968, Updike had already become a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and had published eleven books, including Rabbit, Run (1960), the National Book Award-winning The Centaur (1962), and four collections of short stories. All of these works of fiction received respectful reviews, and one of the central debates that would continue throughout his career had already begun: Some critics embraced the lyrical and impressionistic descriptive style that characterized his fiction as powerful and poetic, while others criticized it as overwrought and distracting.
With Couples, Updike became a literary star. He was featured on the cover of Time and in Life. The novel, published by Alfred A. Knopf, was an instant best seller and remained one for more than a year, selling more than 180,000 hardcover and 3 million paperback copies. The book was controversial for its explicit treatment of sexual acts, its detailed descriptions of sexual parts, and its use of four-letter words. It arguably could not have been published by a mainstream American publishing house just a few years earlier, during the Kennedy era in which it was set, because explicit sexuality was then the province of underground and foreign publishers. (In fact, Knopf had agreed to publish Rabbit, Run only after Updike cut some of its sexual details.)
Like Philip Roth’s best-selling Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) or Paul Masursky’s popular film Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), Couples was both a reflection of and a contributor to the new attitudes toward sexuality that emerged in American culture over the course of the 1960’s. That these works could both be mainstream successes and be criticized by some as pornographic was evidence of how much things had changed by the end of the decade and of how many people were offended by these changes.
Couples is a novel about more than sex, however. More than a portrait of ten couples, or of their coupling, it...
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