Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike dies at 76

US novelist John Updike died on Tuesday, aged 76. He lost his battle with lung cancer.

The two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author was highly prolific, and wrote novels, short stories, non-fiction and verse. Updike was famous for his keenly observed, sharply rendered and insightful narratives of middle America’s domesticity and family life.

As he put it once, “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas.”

Updike also pursued a realism that placed sex and sexuality squarely in the middle of his characters’ lives and thoughts, just as they are in the centre of all our lives. Some thought he took the sex too far, though for different reasons. The prudish British dubbed Updike the ‘laureate of lewd’, while other critics nominated him – repeatedly – for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

However, it’s worth remembering that in the 50s and 60s, Updike was pushing the boundaries of moral prudery and taboo over sexuality in a country and time where many saw Rock ‘n Roll as the work of the devil.

He made no apologies for putting sexuality in the middle of his stories:
“I think taste is a social concept and not an artistic one. I’m willing to show good taste, if I can, in somebody else’s living room, but our reading life is too short for a writer to be in any way polite. Since his words enter into another’s brain in silence and intimacy, he should be as honest and explicit as we are with ourselves.”
I think that some of Updike’s finest work is in his short stories where he explores small town life and burgeoning adolescent sexuality and angst with more restraint and nuance, yet great honesty.

His two Pulitzer Prizes for fiction were for his famous Rabbit series of novels (beginning with Rabbit, Run in 1961) featuring the middle-aged, middle class, middle America suburban antics of high school football hero turned car salesman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Some of his other famous works were The Centaur (1963), The Witches of Eastwick (1984), and The Widows of Eastwick (2008).
“Writers take words seriously-perhaps the last professional class that does— and they struggle to steer their own through the crosswinds of meddling editors and careless typesetters and obtuse and malevolent reviewers into the lap of the ideal reader*.”

— John Updike, Writers on Themselves (1986); Wikiquote

* Whoever that is...

Obituaries elsewhere

A Relentless Updike Mapped America's
Mysteries, The New York Times, 27 January 2009

'Rabbit is gone: Updike's wit, frankness remembered', ABC News Opinion, 28 January 2009

[The image is a Magnum one... shhh...]

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At January 29, 2009 4:21 pm, Blogger Tim said...

Hey Mark, good piece. Might be good to post on Sars? If you can actually get the site to load - I can't. I assume it's still subject to outages.

At January 29, 2009 4:27 pm, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

Thanks, Tim. Honestly, this news/obit piece was originally intended for Sars when I wrote it yesterday, but I had no luck at all loading the site or logging in last night.

And while it is intermittently loading today, I've had no luck logging in to the site today to post the piece. Aaah!

At January 30, 2009 6:09 pm, Anonymous coffee said...

the loss of John Updike makes me wonder if the literary world is being replenished at the same rate that it's losing such great writers


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