In a famous essay criticizing Updike, and Roth, and Mailer (especially good riddance by the way to the latter pregnant-wife-beating waste of oxygen, which fuckery I notice got at best cursory mention in his obits) as Great Male Narcissists, the late David Foster Wallace said that “[w]hen a solipsist dies, after all, everything goes with him.” I wish I thought he was right.
I was raised to never speak ill of the dead, but my upbringing is always sorely tested when someone like John Updike dies. I’ll skirt the issue for the moment by just stating a few undisputed facts about the man. After all, let’s face it: Updike? Not such a fan of women. He usually describes them as an assemblage of body parts rather than thoughts and emotions, as in his oft-anthologized “A&P”: “a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.” Charming.
These aspersions were cast not just as writerly posturing, not just as a function of his characters, but also because Updike, like so many white men (and not just of his generation) resented feminism and its “hysterical” insistence on equality between the sexes: “People of my age are raised to be, sort of, chauvinists,” he chuckled to New York magazine last fall. “To expect women to do the laundry and—it’s terrible! I’m making you cry, almost! But I’m eager to correct that as a writer, more than as a person. As a person, we always have chauvinistic assumptions.” Unsurprisingly, he was nonetheless blithely dismissive of accusations of his sexism: “I can’t believe that I’m misogynist. Rather the contrary. Bright, clever, good women have played a major part in my life, and in my way I’ve tried to be sympathetic and depict the plight of women in our society.”
But enough about him. I will fully cop to not having read and memorized every sentence of the man’s life-work. I have tried on numerous occasions to read any number of his fictional works. (I am something of a masochist.) And readers, I have failed to finish anything longer than a short story. I can’t be bothered to waste time reading literature I find needlessly self-absorbed and boring when there are so many good books I shall never read. But pronounce on his overall literary merit as though I had been anointed the Grand Poobah of Great Writing? That’s not how I roll.
It is, however, how (largely male) popular literary critics like to roll. And what’s been chapping my ass this week while we all fall all over ourselves about this guy is how dismissive these critics are. It’s a very serious problem that we live in a culture that can’t shut up about how great Updike is but has utterly forgotten Elizabeth Taylor (not that one) and Dorothy Richardson. Sometimes critics will admit that they tend to focus on men, but they forget that, oo, there is patriarchy written into the very notion of quality itself.
For example, nearly every Updike obit that deigned to acknowledge feminist criticism contained some version of the following snobby line:
[S]uch criticisms ignored the fact that Updike was reflecting the point of view of male characters of a particular age and class, and in that context they demonstrated psychological insight.
Haha. It’s funny what counts for psychological insight these days. I wonder if the writer of this type of sentence can possibly be sincere. Is it truly the case that we are not aware of the fact that a certain “age and class” of men regard women as sex toys, perhaps capable of cleverness but never of authentic humanity? Is it truly the case that there is something new that can be said about this psychological profile? Is it truly the case that we don’t hear enough about this particular kind of man? And finally, can it possible be that feminist literary critics are “ignoring” this rather obvious angle?
This kind of carefree assertion also ignores what most readers report as a major reason they enjoy literature in the first place: identification with the protagonist. I’m not sure I can, from my lay critic’s perspective, put this in the proper jargon. But if a work of fiction is just an intellectual experience, in which you are absorb, without emotional investment, the description of an experience not your own, are you really enjoying it? Would you recommend it to someone else on the basis of its informational value alone?
Probably not. Often the process of enjoying a book can best be described as recognition. (To return to Wallace, we may all be solipsists.) I don’t think it’s all that radical, as a result, to wonder if the rather unqualified love of Updike being thrown around these days involves a lot of these men recognizing themselves, or recognizing his attitudes towards women, as ones they hold themselves. And if that’s it – if it’s their identification with Rabbit Angstrom or Updike’s or whatever narrator’s voice that is the draw of these books – well, readers, we have a problem here that cannot be answered by categorical assertions of “psychological insight.”