John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 1)

Start Your Free Trial

Download John Updike Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Updike, John (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike, John 1932–

An American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Updike is known as a stylist. He is the author of Couples, Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, and The Centaur. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Since The Poorhouse Fair, I have done my best to keep up with Updike. I have also done my best to understand why so many people I respect enjoy and admire his work. The results have not been good on either count. His short stories—which I usually find myself throwing away in disgust before I can get to the end—strike me as all windup and no delivery, and I am alternately bored and exasperated by the verbal pyrotechnics they specialize in…. To me he seems a writer who has very little to say and whose authentic emotional range is so narrow and thin that it may without too much exaggeration be characterized as limited to a rather timid nostalgia for the confusions of youth. So far as his famous brilliance as a stylist is concerned, the fact that prose as mandarin and exhibitionistic as Updike's can be universally praised seems to be an alarming sign of confusion in the general conception of how the English language functions best.

Norman Podhoretz, "A Dissent on Updike" (1963), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 251-57.

One reason for Updike's success rests on his celebrated style, a restless, exhaustive exploration of minute physical detail. The development of that style is one sign of Updike's growth as a writer. Early stories in The Same Door (1959) strike the reader as technically flawless. Updike's eye remains fixed on the physical presence of things….

The nit-picking style catches the outside of things, the shell of corporate experience we all have by virtue of being twentieth-century Americans. Yet the inside, the characters' capacity to feel and to make us feel, escapes him. Their range of response is limited. Updike's self-conscious characters guard themselves from one another, and from the reader. At worst, the style leaves an empty husk. At best, it reveals characters only potentially interesting. One does not remember them by name, only collectively—the young husband, the student abroad, the long-suffering wife. Here it is difficult to escape the paradox that the celebrated style is a sign of weakness, the outside at the expense of the inside.

Richard H. Rupp, "John Updike: Style in Search of a Center" (© 1967 by The University of the South), in Sewanee Review, Autumn, 1967, pp. 693-709.

The community of Couples is a peculiar sub-group, spawned by World War II and already half extinct. They are the people who wanted to get away from the staleness of the Old America and the vulgarity of the new; who wanted to live beautifully in beautiful surroundings; to raise intelligent children in renovated houses in absolutely authentic rural centers. Eventually, they brewed up their own kind of staleness and vulgarity; the children were left to shift for themselves, and were lucky to grow up no worse than square; the beautiful surroundings became overbuilt; the wrong people moved in; America caught up with them. Updike's slide lecture on this crowd skewers them better than any sociological study has done, or could do….

[With] each book, [Updike] position seems a little less flashy and more solid. In Couples he has written a painful natural history of Man, and it would have been in his interests to make it big with personal tragedy. But this goes against his religion. So instead, it trails off on a note of irony, like Tender Is the Night. Existence is tragedy enough for a Calvinist temperament like his own: and nothing that happens to anyone in particular can add very much to that.

Wilfrid Sheed, "John Updike: Couples" (1968), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by...

(The entire section is 2,916 words.)