The Slump Critical Overview
by John Updike

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

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John Updike has been considered one of America’s most important fiction writers since the publication of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, in 1959. Critics generally categorize him as a witty writer from the New Yorker school, acute in his observations and accurate in his diction. His work as a novelist is well respected among his peers. A survey done by the Sunday Times of London in 1994, asking a group of distinguished British writers who they thought was the greatest living novelist writing in English, ranked Updike second. (Saul Bellow, another American, ranked first.) James A. Schiff, who reports those survey results in his book John Updike Revisited, goes on to list the things that Updike’s detractors hold against him: ‘‘he writes about the white middle class and epitomizes the comfortably smug white male;’’ and ‘‘he allows his white male protagonists to think or make derogatory statements about anyone and everyone, including women, blacks, gays, and various others.’’ Although these are certainly things that might push Updike out of favor with some critics, others legitimately point to shortcomings such as a vague hollowness to his exquisitely wrought characters. Readers tend to see different things. ‘‘The same novel,’’ Bernard A. Schopen wrote in his essay ‘‘Faith, Morality and the Novels of John Updike,’’ ‘‘might be hailed as a major fictional achievement and dismissed as a self-indulgence or a failure.’’

‘‘The Slump’’ is seldom specifically mentioned in criticism of Updike’s works. In part, this is because Updike has been such a prolific writer, churning out more than sixty novels, short story collections, poetry collections, and volumes of essays, that there may be space only to mention one or two of the outstanding short pieces. In addition, though, it is written in a style different from most of the author’s works. Typical of these is a 1984 survey of Updike’s career, for example, in which Robert Detweiler discusses the book Museums and Women (mentioned in his book John Updike) for six pages and then tacks a paragraph onto the end to cover the ‘‘Other Modes’’ and ‘‘Maples’’ sections of the book, which make up almost half the text.

One of the few critics to specifically mention this particular story is Robert M. Luscher, who mentioned it in John Updike: A Study of the Short Fiction. Luscher found:

The ‘Other Modes’ . . . fill out the volume, but vary in quality. Updike’s considerable stylistic talents receive exercise as he ventures further beyond the traditional narrative, although the weight of his well-chosen words threatens to collapse the slighter subjects.

He goes on to dismiss ‘‘The Slump’’ as a ‘‘whimsical sketch,’’ though he does so respectfully, making clear that nothing more should be expected of it than what it turns out to be.