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Fiction as a window into other cultures

tl;dr: more on Updike.

In our recent discussion of reviews of John Updike books, John Bullock pointed us to this essay by Claire Lowdon, who begins:

In the opening scene of Rabbit, Run (1960), John Updike’s second published novel, the twenty-six-year-old Harry Angstrom – aka Rabbit – joins some children playing basketball around a telephone pole. One of the boys is very good.

He’s a natural. The way he moves sideways without taking any steps, gliding on a blessing: you can tell. The way he waits before he moves. With luck he’ll become in time a crack athlete in the high school; Rabbit knows the way. You climb up through the little grades and then get to the top and everybody cheers; with the sweat in your eyebrows you can’t see very well and the noise swirls around you and lifts you up, and then you’re out, not forgotten at first, just out, and it feels good and cool and free. You’re out, and sort of melt, and keep lifting, until you become like to these kids just one more piece of the sky of adults that hangs over them in the town, a piece that for some queer reason has clouded and visited them. They’ve not forgotten him: worse, they never heard of him. Yet in his time Rabbit was famous through the county; in basketball in his junior year he set a B-league scoring record that in his senior year he broke with a record that was not broken until four years later.

Are the kids reading John Updike now? Or is he, like his most famous creation, “just one more piece of the sky of adults”? For “adults”, in 2019, read Dead White Males . . .

Lowdon continues:

When we reread Rabbit, Run today, with almost 2020 vision [this review was published in 2019 — AG], the novel’s assumptions about men and women leap out at us. . . .

There are plenty of things I [Lowdon] could say in “defence” of these awkward moments. First, they are all thought or spoken by Updike’s characters, not by him. (Counter-objection: Updike is closely aligned with his own protagonists.) . . . Second, Updike himself balances the male gaze with powerful moments of insight into the female perspective. . . . I could go on – or, indeed, start to counter those counter-objections. . . .

So far, so balanced: after all, it would be an unusual choice in this era to review Updike and not address, in some way or another, the perception that he’s a sexist. This wouldn’t be quite on the level of reviewing Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography, but you get the point.

But then Lowdon turns in a new (to me) and interesting direction:

In the third episode of the charming podcast “Medieval History for Pleasure and Profit”, Alice Rio and Alice Taylor give a surprising response to a listener’s question, “how badly did it smell, really?” They point out how relative smell is – how a medieval person travelling forward in time to today would be overwhelmed by the stench of petrol fumes, which we mostly don’t notice. The things we smell in Updike’s work, or Bellow’s, are as indicative of our own time as of theirs. And times change very quickly. . . .

Who knows – in another two decades, 2019’s heated discussions about race and gender may look equally quaint. The atrocities we’re unconsciously committing in our novels today are probably something to do with the environment. All those casual plane journeys in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy! . . . If we lift our muzzles from the scent trail of sexism in Updike’s early work and look around, we find ourselves standing firmly in the past.

One reason we read fiction is to make sense of our world. Another reason is to learn about worlds other than ours. Updike, like all fiction writers, does both these things. Even bad writers are there to make sense of our world and tell us about other worlds. Bad writing can do this indirectly (by revealing an author’s unconsidered stereotypes) and tediously (so that it’s just not worth the effort to read), but they still do so in some ways. Recall my argument about works of alternative history.

Lowdon is making the point that anything we read will be presenting a different perspective. That said, some perspectives seem to date faster than others. Mark Twain, for example, seems strikingly modern to me, even though he was writing 150 years ago. Just to be clear, I’m not simply using “modern” as a shorthand for “interesting” or “relevant.” Shakespeare remains interesting and relevant, but I wouldn’t say he has a modern perspective: he has all this stuff about noble blood etc. which I guess is how most people thought back then but which today seems “faintly naff” (as Lowdon would say).

I’m also reminded of the point I encountered in some book about translation (maybe this one), about the tension when translating a book from another language: On one hand, you want your reading of the book to be similar to the experience of a native speaker of that language, hence you want a smooth translation into readable modern English. On the other hand, one reason you’re reading a book from another culture is that you want to get a feel for that culture, so you want the English translation to capture some of this.

To put it another way: when I read a book written in England, I don’t want words such as “lift,” local markers such as “Tesco,” and expressions such as “too clever by half” to be translated into American, any more than I’d want Lucinda Williams’s music re-sung by someone with a mid-Atlantic accent. The only difference with a book written in a foreign language is that some amount of translation is required—it’s just not clear how much.

I don’t think anyone’s proposing that we read a Bowdlerized Updike, shorn of its mid-twentieth-century sexual politics, any more than I’d want a hypothetical reader of this blog in 2100 to push the delete key because I refer too many times to airline flights, beef patties, and other signifiers of our current resource-devouring era.

Speaking of retro sexual politics, let me remind you that one characteristic of stereotyping is that it can go in any direction. Recall this example. It seems to me that the most important aspect of stereotyping is not its direction but rather in its strongly essentialist perspective.

That all said, it’s not just that Updike is old-fashioned and was a man of his time; his specific attitudes can affect how we experience his books. You can learn from his books, but that doesn’t mean you will like them, if his views are just too far from your own. I can enjoy novels from authors whose political and social views differ a lot from mine—it takes me out of my comfort zone, and that can be good—but if you go too far, and without any irony, eventually I’ll find it just too unpleasant to take. When I read supposedly humorous essays by people joking about how parents should be allowed to give their kids a good whuppin’, I don’t think it’s charming; I’m just repulsed. It’s just too much of a distraction, at least for me.

I think that’s the point about Updike’s male gaze etc. It doesn’t happen to bother me when I read the books, but I can see that it could bother you a little so that you have to come to terms with it (that’s Lowdon’s position), or it could bother you so much that you just don’t want to deal with it. I respect that last position as well.

All of this becomes more complicated because we’re talking about fiction rather than nonfiction or political speeches or journalism or whatever where statements can be taken literally. I have a friend who no longer enjoys football because he can’t stop thinking about the injuries. I respect that position, even though I’m not quite there yet.

P.S. My own take on Updike is different from most of what I’ve seen. I read Updike for the content, not the style. Or, to put it another way, I value Updike’s style because it’s a way for him to get to his content. To me, Rabbit, Run is not about the glissando of Updike’s descriptions or his male gaze or whatever; it’s all about Harry, this character who’s still young but with adult responsibilities that he doesn’t really want. Kind of like John Updike—or the United States—in 1960. On the back of my paperback copy of Rabbit Run is the following quote from a review . . . oh, I don’t remember it exactly, let me go to my bookshelf . . . it’s not there! I wonder what happened to my copy of Rabbit, Run? I like to reread this book from time to time. OK, let me do some web searching . . . here’s the blurb, I think: “a powerful writer with his own vision of the world.”

P.P.S. Let me again plug James Atlas’s book about the writing of literary biography.


  1. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Bravo. A balanced opinion. Far, far too many reviews deal with the reviewer’s refined sensibility, not with things in the author’s work. The problem, of course, is that the reviewer is a person too; but reactions that are too personal, or too synchronous with the zeitgeist, are unlikely to be interesting. If the review is too personal, we unfortunately learn more about the reviewer than the author. (That works for reviewers who are more interesting than authors, but they are few and far between.) If the review simply wallows in the zeitgeist, we lose the alternative perspective the book should give us. We *know* the zeitgeist already… we live in it.

  2. Dave C. says:

    Another recommendation is Robert Alter’s recent book “The Art of Biblical Translation”. He laments translations that over-explain or make the text sound like “it was written last Thursday.”

  3. oncodoc says:

    I was in my twenties when I read Updike, and I was very naive about the world, men/women, and the reality of being petit bourgeois in America. I liked Updike, and Rabbit opened my eyes a little. Popular fiction at that time was dominated by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susanne best sellers. Updike was better than his contemporaries. Most writers have no vision, a few have a good vision of their times, and very few have a transcendent vision of the world. Updike had real writerly skills and some perspective on his times. He was no Balzac, no Edith Wharton, no Jane Austen, and I’m not rereading him. None of his books are on my shelves nor in my Kindle. However, he was good in his own time. Don Mattingly was a decent player for the Yankees, not one of their immortals, but good enough in his time. Likewise, Updike was good enough in his time.
    Later day criticism is a bit vacuous. I know a lot more about the Solar system than Galileo did, but I don’t fault him for not knowing about Pluto.

    • jim says:

      That’s a great characterization of Updike. I had never thought out his work that way. I bumped into Updike in lit classes in the 1980s and didn’t connect with his work at all and always wondered why he was such a big deal. I guess after the fall of Saigon, Apocalypse Now and Platoon, Rabbit’s troubles seemed manageable.

      Later he redeemed himself when I bumped into his essay, read by Jack Davidson on Selected Shorts, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It’s hard to separate the writing from the reading, but whatever, it’s *the* best story I have ever listened to. In fact I’m going to listen to it right now.

  4. jonathan says:

    I found Updike appealed to my father’s generation, which was also true of many other famous post war writers. Norman Mailer, for example: when I read Naked and the Dead, it seemed filled with an old-fashioned romanticism that was intentionally being undercut by grit while remaining romantic. Updike’s descriptions have a concreteness to them which has become almost a requirement of modern writing; nailing down details has become an obsession in modern fiction. But I had trouble relating to the material because, bluntly, I grew up in the midwest, in the suburbs, in an almost completely Christian environment, and the material felt obvious to me because that was what I saw around me. (That is not intended to be a comment on you.) I grew up with dope and Vietnam, so romanticism was gone.

    I tend to trace this ‘concreteness’ thread back in the modern age to Ulysses. And anyone who took a course in the development of the novel knows about how the ending of Tom Jones switches from romantic form to the logically detailed novel form.

    A partial exception for that generation of writers, to me, is Philip Roth. His approach is more, to me, constructed like a play, and plays have a certain inherent staged quality.

    As to Updike’s man issues, I early in life became disgusted by Hemingway. My dad had a record of him talking, mostly telling stories. It was so self-centered that it bothered me, mostly because he took on a persona that was engaging only if you worshipped. I read The Sun Also Rises multiple times over, trying to understand it. (To explain, I slept very little, so I’d take one of my dad’s books and go read in the downstairs bathroom all night or until my dad would see the light under the door and make me go to bed. If I was really in a rut, I’d pick up Finnegan’s Wake and read until I decided that writing highly coded material was not a form of literature I enjoyed, and that I missed Harold and The Purple Crayon.)

    So, over readings, I developed an ‘anti-male’ stance. It’s easy to explain with regard to TSAR: as a child, what mattered to me, as is generally true to younger people, is the story of love, not the story of inserting an erect penis into a vagina as being the pre-requisite for love. So what I saw were two people who loved each other, and the man was a relationship coward or fool or baby hurt by the loss of function which the author treated as so important the man lets the women he loves be brutalized by a variety of predatory men. It’s as if Odysseus came home and sat around watching Penelope get abused by suitor after suitor. In my pre-actual sexual mind, this was unforgivable. As I grew older, I realized he’d imposed a penis-led definition of sexuality on the characters, both the man and the woman, as if the inability to do one thing is enough to ‘excuse’ the man for his human failings. It’s the opposite of Jane Austen: rather than loving longest even hope and existence is gone, he cant love the woman in front of him because his dick wont work.

    It gets worse: it wasnt until the late 90’s, with Viagra, that ED was widely recognized culturally as an issue. But of course, it’s been around forever, so this ‘dick wont work so I’m not a man’ conception actually seems to have embodied the larger male fear of impotence that will come no matter what. (Which gets to Updike.) And yet, people stay married. They still pursue loving relationships. And one freakishly simple reason is that this defines sex in a relationship as what the penis does. Gee, Jake, have you ever sat and just talked to Brett? God gave you hands and a mouth, but you can only see how you dont ‘measure up’. Never heard of a toy? Ever heard of adoption? That last really bothered me: women deal with infertility as a denial of something important to the definition of a woman, but they are obviously capable of loving adopted children.

    To compare Roth, he would typically do a fish out of water story. Like the one about the Jewish city kid who goes off to Christian private school land (and gets killed in the Korean War because that world rejects him). Updike is fish in the water stories. (Cheever is like that too.) You marry the good looking cheerleader. You have kids. You have a job. None of it is particularly thrilling to you because you remember more promise in life than it actually seems to hold. That concept reminded me a lot of older books like Dodsworth, but with less obvious artificiality (or the staginess of Roth). As an aside, Glory Days is perhaps my least favorite Springsteen single. No, glory days is lying on the floor next to your daughter betting on whether the patient on House will bleed from some orifice or if projectile vomiting will be involved.

    I’ve probably mentioned these points already because you’ve mentioned Updike before. If so, I apologize for rattling on.

  5. Zhou Fang says:

    > I don’t think anyone’s proposing that we read a Bowdlerized Updike, shorn of its mid-twentieth-century sexual politics, any more than I’d want a hypothetical reader of this blog in 2100 to push the delete key because I refer too many times to airline flights, beef patties, and other signifiers of our current resource-devouring era.

    WELLL… Maybe I could, haha. I mean, I think if Updike was being adapted to a different medium, it would be perfectly okay – expected even – for the adaptation to address issues like sexual politics or racism. Indeed, if Updike was a movie or a videogame, such a change could be made in a revised version of the work. So, why is such adaptational change okay, but creating a “modernised” “remake” of Updike not? Is this a book-specific notion of authorial sanctity?

  6. John Bullock says:

    If we lift our muzzles from the scent trail of sexism in Updike’s early work and look around, we find ourselves standing firmly in the past.

    […] anything we read will be presenting a different perspective.

    As you say, different authors do this to different extents. In this vein, it’s interesting to compare Updike to his great contemporaries. I think that they were trying harder than Updike to write stories about particular people that had universal appeal. And Updike was trying harder than they were to be the supreme chronicler of a particular time. Herzog is about Herzog, not America in 1964. Sabbath’s Theater is about Sabbath much more than it is about New York in the 1990s. But the Rabbit books, especially the last three, are at least as much about the country at particular times as they are about Rabbit. That is still more true of Updike’s best work: it’s about a time, a milieu, more than it is about individual people.

    And that time does seem so different. Updike often wrote about a way of life among upper-middle-class professionals that is within memory but probably lost forever. They’re all men. There is zero assortative mating by education or occupation. It is normal to marry in your early 20s and to start having children immediately. Families with five children are unusual but not extraordinary. Even in this class, people’s lives are almost completely separate from their jobs; they almost never think about work when they’re not at the office. There is a lot more drinking; “Six bourbons were talking through him” is not an extraordinary line in an Updike story. If Updike were writing about the same class of people today, none of this would be the same.

    this character who’s still young but with adult responsibilities that he doesn’t really want. Kind of like John Updike—or the United States—in 1960.

    It is amazing to realize that he was only 28 when Rabbit, Run came out. It’s hard to think of another novel, written by an author so young, that is so ambitious and for which the ambition is so fulfilled. (What is the competition? Sons and Lovers?)

  7. David J. Littleboy says:

    Yukio Mishima. His first collected works set (6 volumes) was compiled when he was 28 (but published the next year). Works published before he turned 29 (Jan. 1954) include Confessions of a Mask, Thirst for Love, and Forbidden Colors. He was a bit of a workaholic: at the time of his death (age 45) he had written 34 novels, about 50 plays, about 25 books of short stories, and at least 35 books of essays, one libretto, as well as one film. (Although he hasn’t written anything since..)

    Speaking of translation, there was a teapot tempest here a few years ago about “Chou-Honyaku” (“Extreme Translation”). The idea was to discard any attempt at faithfulness to the original text so as to create a work in Japanese that read as comfortably as the original did in its original language. The literature types were incensed, but to me, it sounded like a perfectly sensible idea for popular fiction.

  8. Jag Bhalla says:

    Very interesting, and much to be gained from external views on Western novels, for example

    Stalin called novelists “engineers of the soul” ( ).

    Novels are a “sophisticated technology of selfhood” (Vikram Chandra Geek Chic) used by the British in India to create the “right” kind of educated Indian ( ). Speaking of India and Updike, Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement notes Updike’s defination of the modern novel as “individual moral adventure” doesn’t fit many non-Western novels ( ). Many other cultures aren’t individualist (which is a recent invention ). From a stats pov, individualism is still a (W.E.I.R.D.) sampling error of humanity ( ).

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