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Updike [Jan. 28th, 2009|04:34 pm]
[Current Mood |critical]

I was never an Updike fan.  I'd never analyzed my reasons--I just found his work unpalatable though certainly the man could write.  It was what he chose to write about, and the tone of his writing, that put me off.   One commentator/eulogist yesterday evening finally brought it into focus for me, when he said that Updike's genius was expressing  the state of mind of unhappy suburban men of his day. 

At once I remembered other books I was supposed to like and didn't, which fell into the same genre (and it is a genre)--the plight of the unhappily successful, especially the unhappily successful man in an affluent northeastern city or suburb who just isn't satisfied and goes on at length about it (or his writer does.)   I can't remember all the writers who played variations on that theme, but Steinbeck, Roth, and Updike were among them.  Their stories were in the important magazines, too.  I confess, without guilt, that I never finished an Updike book and didn't start more than one....I had been sensitized by earlier writers in the genre and as soon as I recognized the character type and tone...I backed out.   I did read some of his shorter work, and again--the man could write, could express himself clearly and firmly.  But not in a way that made me want to read more.
I had problems with that whole genre (and it was a genre) about unhappy middle-class family men with ample money (mostly) and moral and spiritual blahs.   I kept wanting to smack those characters with some clue-bats.   Instead of wandering around feeling sorry for themselves and having sex with anything that would hold still and then having guilt pangs, they could have grown up and done something interesting.   I found them both boring and annoying.   (FWIW, I found the later spate of books about unhappy suburban housewives to be just as boring and annoying.  A nonfiction book talking about the problem of unhappy housewives is one thing--but all those novels whose sole purpose seemed to be to transfer the Updike/Roth mode from men to women?  Ick.)  

Granted, this reaction comes from having a completely different life and no experience of theirs.   Only child of divorced (and of necessity working) mother, living way the heck off in a far corner of the country, far from the pretty Connecticut suburbs, far from the amenities these guys found boring.   I just could not dredge up any sympathy for a guy with a good job, a nice home, and a wife, just because she wasn't as pretty and fun as she had been, or one of his kids wasn't being the perfect plastic model to prove his perfect father-ness.  I had zero sympathy for adulterers (natural under my circumstances) and (having been forbidden to whine my entire life) zero sympathy for these whiny men who acted like spoiled toddlers if everything in their life didn't make them feel big! important! happy! superior! sexy! desirable! important! masterful! excited! 

Most of the adult men I knew weren't anything  like that.  Of course, they also weren't pulling down fat salaries from gray-flannel-suit firms and living in fancy two-story houses in the nicer suburbs near New York City or Boston.  They were highway department engineers, plumbers, carpenters, telephone linemen, electricians, painters, small businessmen who owned a pet store or a furniture store or a grocery store or a laundry/dry-cleaning plant or a photography business.  Even the ones most resembling the tormented-suburban-male genre "hero" were stabilized to some extent by the sheer practicality of a small town and the fact that most of the other guys were WWII and Korean War vets who did not take kindly to prima donnas in pants.

When I read fiction, I want interesting characters.   They don't have to be rich, important people...but they need to be interesting.   (The perfect "small" character for me is the hero of Nevil Shute's  _Trustee from the Toolroom_.  A nonentity, walking down the street.  Small man, small job.  Big, HUGE possibilities.  No whining.  No drama-queen selfpitying dramatics.  Quiet, passionate, determination to fulfill an obligaion of honor.)    No amount of literary grace  will make up for lack of interesting characters and a story with a point to it..and it's simply not true that those who create interesting characters and stories with a point to them write inferior sentences and paragraphs.  (Some do; some don't.  The last true literary novel I read, a prizewinner, had its share of clunky sentences too.)

So though I'm sorry anyone dies of cancer...not a death  I'd wish on my enemies...I feel able to withstand the loss of Updike with equanimity.


[User Picture]From: hugh_mannity
2009-01-28 11:28 pm (UTC)
Ah yes, the genre I mentally refer to as "wanking suburbia" -- whether it's men or women -- and have utterly no sympathy for.

I've never read more than a few chapters of an Updike novel and have no intention of doing so. I loved Trustee from the Toolroom though and I'm currently re-reading the Deed of Paksenarrion -- which is infinitely more interesting than the angst of any whiney upper-middle class over privileged twit who really should get over him/herself!
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[User Picture]From: msminlr
2009-01-28 11:28 pm (UTC)
I agree totally with the "everyday hero" preference.
I wish I could find a copy of "Trustee from the Toolroom"; I've only read it once and that around 30 years ago when I had first discovered Shute in the local library.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-01-29 04:39 am (UTC)
My mother introduced me to him, and then I found his books in the library. _Trustee from the Toolroom_ was my mother's favorite, and I found her a copy in a used bookstore years later and gave it to her for her birthday. Now I have it...and it re-reads very well.
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[User Picture]From: duane_kc
2009-01-28 11:29 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Now I don't feel quite as guilty for despising Updike and Steinbeck as I used to.
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[User Picture]From: netpositive
2009-01-29 12:01 am (UTC)
Florence King did a nicely scathing epistolary review of Updike's works entitled "Phallus in Wonderland" which summed up so many of the things that you and I both dislike about his plots, characters, and writing style. :)

I did finally find one book of his (_In the Beauty of the Lilies_) that I was able to finish, because part of it dealt with being a Presbyterian and losing and leaving one's faith in search of something else. _That_, I could identify with! :) But that overall genre of "unhappy suburban men" (what I always thought of as "New Yorker fiction" -- until they recently published Nabokov ;) ) is about as uninteresting to me as novels where women spend a lot of time shopping....

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[User Picture]From: kriz1818
2009-01-29 12:07 am (UTC)
I tried to read The Witches of Eastwick once - but it's a much better movie.

I wonder if, in 2109, he'll be remembered as a spokesman for the immature and thoughtless mid-twentieth-century suburbanite?
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[User Picture]From: sdn
2009-01-29 02:35 am (UTC)
you are my hero.
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[User Picture]From: stephen_dedman
2009-01-29 03:25 am (UTC)
I haven't read "Trustee from the Toolroom", but I did enjoy Shute's No Highway, which has a similar theme. I'll admit that I haven't read any Updike either, but in defense of Roth, his novel The Plot Against America moves away from the "unhappy white-collar male suburbanite" sub-genre into parallel history that's quite nightmarish, if overlong, with characters who have at least some cause for self-pity. And while I'm not a huge fan of Steinbeck, his most successful works dealt more with the rural poor rather than the maudlin suburban middle class.

That said, I can see why publishers working in large cities might be biased towards novels about the perceived problems of unhappy middle-class male suburbanites who have money to spend on books :-)
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-01-29 04:47 am (UTC)
Steinbeck wrote some books I like very much--_Cannery Row_ for instance, and there's another one set in California that I liked (title's escaping me.) I don't blame him for _The Red Pony_ being called a children's book, but it did put me off his work for awhile. One summer in high school I read a *lot* of Steinbeck (anything I could find in paperback, and thus afford, and that my mother didn't already own.)

But _The Winter of Our Discontent_, set in a northeastern suburb, isn't what I thought of as a Steinbeck...and I didn't like it.

Maybe 15-20 years ago, when I had had several books publishedI picked up a New Yorker (I used to love Pauline Kael's movie reviews, Audax Minor on racing, the cartoons and often teh articles) and at the foot of a review of a novel, there was a sentence that for years I could quote verbatim (but not now.) Basically the reviewer took the position that you couldn't expect reliable advice on living from novelists, because they lived lives isolated from ordinary responsibilities and people. And I thought "Yeah, if you're a young male living alone in a garret, maybe...but do you really think that's how most books are written?"
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From: mmegaera
2009-01-29 05:53 am (UTC)
I was forced to read him in college, and I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement. Him and John Cheever, among others.

For me, the best (and pretty much the only readable) Steinbeck is Travels with Charley in Search of America. But I am a connoisseur of road memoirs.
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From: ext_156455
2009-01-29 08:11 am (UTC)

I agree!

When I was younger I would attempt to read some of his writings but get bored very quickly. Now I know why. Thanks for your thoughts. Now I don't feel as if I missed something. When I remember my live journal name I will ask if you will consider adding me. Meanwhile you have my e-mail.

A. W. Thomas
(My daughter attends McHi, which is how I found your interesting journal)
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[User Picture]From: la_marquise_de_
2009-01-29 11:01 am (UTC)
That pretty much expresses what I've been feeling, too. The literary canon is full of men-centred writing, much of it good, but not for me.
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[User Picture]From: yvonneh
2009-01-29 11:17 am (UTC)
My dad - who left school at 16 to support his widowed mother and younger sister - loved Nevil Shute, and I grew up on his books. Dad was one of those people who could make anything and he taught me to appreciate craftsmanship and dedication and integrity - worlds away from the well-off middle class whingers that made me so impatient with Updike and Sinclair. I didn't like their passive women, either!

Thanks for expressing it so well, Capitaine. In a way I'm relieved to no longer feel a freak for not appreciating a whole genre.
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[User Picture]From: chris_gerrib
2009-01-29 03:46 pm (UTC)
I'd just like to add a hearty "Amen."
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From: otterb
2009-01-30 05:36 pm (UTC)
A Town Like Alice has long been one of my favorite books, but for some reason I never looked at any of Shute's others. I may see if I can pick up Trustee from the Toolroom over the weekend; our public library system doesn't have it at my branch but does at another not too far away.

Never read any Updike, and these comments are not inspiring me to run out and find some.
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[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2009-01-30 05:43 pm (UTC)
I liked _A Town Like Alice_, fact, the only Shute I didn't much like was his most famous, _On the Beach_. Have you read _The Rainbow and the Rose_?
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From: otterb
2009-01-30 08:00 pm (UTC)
No, but I see the library has it, too. :-)
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