Updike Revisited

My son Harry has shamed me into reading War and Peace so you won’t hear from me for a while. Maybe. After hearing her interviewed on Fresh Air, I couldn’t resist buying noted biographer (Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy) Claire Tomalin’s new memoir, and I’ll probably sneak a peek when no one’s looking. I mean how much of Napoleon Bonaparte can one take? (Undoubtedly I’ll regret that question once I’m educated. I might as well come out right now and and admit I’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey either. There. It’s all out in the open now.)

What I want to talk about today is John Updike, or rather John Updike as viewed through a lens of political correctness. For the past several years I’ve enjoyed listening to books on Audible, especially when on long walks. From time to time I tune into The Writer’s Voice, which features New Yorker writers reading their own work, and Fiction podcasts, wherein writers choose from among the magazine’s other writers to read and discuss.

New York Girl MODOn a recent sparkly early fall day, I set out from Blackie’s Pasture near Tiburon to walk along the Bay accompanied by the remarkable Tessa Hadley reading John Updike’s “New York Girl,” followed by a conversation with New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman. One couldn’t hope for better company.

Tessa Hadley, of course, is the author of Clever Girl and The Past, along with several short story collections.  She’s a wonderful writer and if you haven’t read her yet, you should.  I’m anxiously awaiting her new novel, Late in the Day, due in January.

Updike, well, he’s Updike. I had the great fortune to interview him shortly before his death, and let’s just say it was the highlight of my literary life. He was kind, generous and good-humored, everything one wants from a literary icon. He told me, with a laugh, The New Yorker still rejected his stories from time to time, making me love him even more.

The story Tessa Hadley chose to read, “New York Girl,” is damn near perfect. It’s evocative and wistful and revealing and filled with the kind of descriptive detail at which Updike excels.

During the conversation following Tessa Hadley’s gorgeous reading, Deborah Treisman quoted a James Wood review of the collection in which the story appears, where he took Updike to task for the way he writes about women. Tessa Hadley very eloquently disagreed, citing all the reasons the story rises above Woods’s petty criticism. When a writer captures a moment in time as beautifully as Updike does, she said, it gathers force for readers and adds to the truth of the world. And as for Woods’s jab that Updike writes about lust rather than love, Hadley scoffs, “If lust is this good, what’s wrong with it?” And indeed, if you read or listen to the story, you’ll know that the protagonist’s feeling for the object of his affection is far more complicated and nuanced than lust.

All of which led me to think about how easy it is to jump on the politically correct bandwagon (especially in the age of #MeToo) and throw some terrific writers under the bus. Yes, gratuitously macho sexist fiction that is offensive to women does exist. But to diss a sensitive Updike story that’s more about nostalgia for one’s youth than anything else, and a story in which the woman actually comes out on top, is nonsense.

I also blame Treisman, who led the conversation with Woods’s review. Bad choice. And good for Tessa Hadley for setting her straight. I must admit I find Debroah Treisman annoying. She’s obviously good at choosing the fiction the magazine prints. But she can’t seem to speak above a whisper and her questions are often facile. The writers she interviews deserve better.