Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat

So the other day I mentioned in passing that I’d given a particular, unnamed John Updike book a try, that I read it for twenty pages and then quit as being about “fucking boring old people.” Well, a friend of mine correctly identified the title in question from that dismissive one-line summary, and linked me to a review that David Foster Wallace wrote for the NY Observer. It is here, and it is amazing, seriously if you haven’t read it yet, do that and then come back. Cuz I want to talk about it.

To rewind, though:

A frequent frustration for me as a gay reader is the frustration of hearing people lavish praise upon something that I could not enjoy because it singled out me and mine for scorn, caricaturing, humiliation, and pointless misery. But when you try to point that out to people who enjoyed it, their response tends to be, “Well it’s really good, so it’s a shame you can’t get over yourself, because you would enjoy it a lot if you weren’t so uptight.”

Cue gnashing of teeth.

In any event, I was reminded of this anew when reading Wallace’s review of Toward the End of Time. It’s a fantastic beat-down and I enjoyed the hell out of it (and I am so very glad I stopped reading that book when I did), but it sports an excellent example of what I was just talking about: Wallace is wildly intelligent, far less of an asshole than Updike, and yet he still doesn’t get it. He still thinks it’s a female problem that women don’t enjoy Updike, rather than an Updike problem.

Now, I’m aware that it’s a precarious thing for a guy to presume the right to step up and take offense on behalf of women (particularly when women seem to be doing a perfectly good fine excoriating Updike on their own; I raise my glass to the authors of those quotes). But this issue does hit me personally, because misogyny doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the same writer who has no quarter for women also has no quarter for men like me.

When men write about a man’s world, whether it’s High Literature or trashy grimdark fantasy, I don’t find characters who are like me any more frequently than most female readers do. If there’s a well-spoken, fastidious prettyboy — even if he’s not explicitly tagged as gay — in a book by a straight man, odds are ten to one that the narrative is going to heap scorn on him and invite the reader to do the same. At best, he’ll be weak and useless and cowardly; at worst, weak and evil and cowardly, someone who’s going to try (and worse, fail) to stab the manly protagonist in the back.

(Just as I was writing this, White House Down came out and furnished me with an archetypal example in the form of the bad guys’ hacker — swishy and effeminate, a stand-out on a team full of ex-marines and alpha males. Now I liked that character, liked seeing someone like me in that intersection of queer and computer-nerd, but it’s pretty clear that the audience is being invited to laugh at him, not with him. He’s the only one motivated by petty spite and skewed priorities rather than Manly Pain and High Ideals, and is in possession of the least respectable death in that movie.)

The obvious lesson that men are supposed to take away from these books is not to be a faggy girly-man. I don’t know what lesson women are expected to take away, since it’s not like they’re supposed to stop being women. (Oh wait, I think it do: begins and ends with “know your place.”)

(Related: Julia Serrano wrote brilliantly about the connections between homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny in her book Whipping Girl, highly recommended reading.)

But okay whatever, so Updike’s a misogynist. So Orson Scott Card shits on all things gay. But why you gotta be so shrill (and personal) about it, wimmin and queers? Can’t you people appreciate his writing for all its other fine qualities?

NO. NO I CAN’T, BECAUSE WHAT THEY’RE WRITING IS A DIRECT INSULT TO ME AND EVERYONE LIKE ME. This text is kicking me in the balls and I’m supposed to smile through that and enjoy it anyway? And I’m supposed to not call people out when they sing paeans to it, ignoring and implicitly condoning everything that makes me see red? Not to put too fine a point on it, but go fuck yourself in the eye.

Ahhh, I’m coming late to the party, yes, I know — welcome to being a woman and seeing yourself through through the male lens, and then being told that your anger is illegitimate.

It’s only that I’m just now having the revelation that I don’t to believe them. That I don’t have to make an obeisance to the book’s worthiness before I’m allowed to criticize it, that my objections are not just those of the butthurt. That I can say, No really, this book is straight-up shit. Meticulously crafted, exquisitely styled shit.

That if Updike fundamentally misapprehends half the human race, then maybe he isn’t as good or insightful a writer as he gets credit for being. Maybe that’s the objective truth rather than a matter of my tastes differing from those of critics. Because from where I’m standing, it seems like all he can do is skillfully (beautifully, even) render the world as seen through his own narrow filter, and to people who share that view, for whom his opinions resonate, it looks like high art.

Yes, Updike’s prose is very nice. I noticed that right away, even when I was bored beyond reason with the content. His prose is stunning, Wallace was correct about that and I’m not contesting it, even in this, supposedly the worst book he’s ever written. But you know what? A lot of other writers also have stunning prose, male and female writers in roughly equal number, I’ve found, and the fact that men like Updike get more acclaim than women like Dorothy Allison or queers like Jim Grimsley says that it’s not just about the prose quality, it’s that they find Updike’s content more appealing and/or more palatable than that of gay and female writers.

Reading Updike for his prose? Seems rather like reading Playboy for the articles — I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that both come with a side of straight male sexual fantasies. “I enjoy his prose,” they say, “I don’t approve of his misogyny.”


Critics are not passive observers in this — they have actively chosen to privilege writers like Updike over other writers who are equally good stylists but with better gender politics, and I don’t believe them when they say it’s a coincidence. Critics, David Foster Wallace — own up to the fact that you see something of yourself in Updike’s writing, something that you agree and identify with and kept you reading for twenty-five goddamn books. Figure out what that something is and take a long, hard look at it before you insist that Updike’s misogyny has nothing to do with you.

7 thoughts on “Updike, Champion Literary Phallocrat

  1. Glad you enjoyed it! I was a little reluctant to post this because it feels like a statement of the obvious (“You don’t have to put up with that shit”), but it was a moment of clarity about a lot of things that had been bothering me for a long time but I hadn’t been able to put into words.

  2. I’ve always found Updike almost unreadable; not due to his writing, but due to his self-absorption. I want to tell his characters to snap out of it and get their heads out of their asses. Both the review and the book were written pre 9/11, and the crash of the Stock Market. I’m not sure that writers in general can afford that type of self-absorption.

    I don’t, and haven’t, considered Updike to be a major literary force, more of a curiosity like a fly in amber, catching a specific moment, but no longer living.

    Incidentally, I am often annoyed by “women’s fiction.”

  3. Yes, well, you’re a woman, and not liking Updike is clearly a Female Thing. :P

    Self-absorption is a trait I don’t handle well in characters, any characters, it’s why I crapped out on Swimming Pool Library so fast even though it’s supposed to be a pillar of gay literature. fffffuck that noise, seriously, there are few things less attractive.

  4. Nice insight. I’ve seen a couple examples of exactly what you were saying about the gay dandy character, who’ve often been my favorite while all the other characters (masculine men and warrior women alike) heap scorn onto him. So disappointing.

  5. Well that’s the basis of Serrano’s thesis — that the equal rights movement has made great strides in putting femaleness (that is, being biologically female) on par with being biologically male, but femininity (in men and women both) is still universally belittled.

  6. I think that was well worth writing, and not at all just a statement of the obvious.

    I think queer lit all the way back to Wilde tends to envy self-absorption the same way it envies truly believing in black and white morality, or having no idea what it feels like to be an outsider, or being utterly without conscience, or being young and pretty, or all those other things that can never be recovered once they’re lost. It’s a weirdly hedonistic and decadent sort of nostalgia, for things that were bad, but did have their silver linings.

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