U is for Updike


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John Hoyer Updike was born in 1932 in Pennsylvania and it was his mother’s own attempts to be a published writer that inspired him to do the same.

He graduated from Harvard with a degree in English but his early ambitions to become a cartoonist led him to study Art at Oxford University. When he returned to the US the family moved to New York and it was there that his writing career began, initially as a full time member of staff at The New Yorker. He wrote poetry and short stories that were published in the magazine, and later this work was published in book form as short story collections.

His connection with The New Yorker (a relationship that continued many years after he left their employment) gave him access to readers and enabled him to publish his first novel in 1960, Rabbit – Run, the first in a series of 6 books. Updike enjoyed working in series and produced 5 during his lifetime. He worked in a wide array of genres, including fiction (30 novels and 17 short story collections), poetry, essays, a play, and a memoir. He won many awards including two Pulitzer Prizes.

Often compared to Nabokov, his style of writing was described as “rich” and carefully crafted. The constant theme of his work was religion, sex, America and death. He wrote nostalgically about small town America.

He died in Massachusetts in 2009 of lung cancer at the age of 76.

Updike was a Literary Critic and in one of his Essays he lists his personal rules for criticism.

1. “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

2. “Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.”

3. “Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.”

4. “Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.”

5. “If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”

“To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.”

My favourite Updike quotes:

“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.”

“A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.”

“Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled, to muster for another days progress through the dazzling quicksand the marsh of blank paper.”

“It’s always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You’d rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you’d rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you’ve enjoyed.”

“To the young writers, I would merely say, “Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour say–or more–a day to write.” Some very good things have been written on an hour a day. . . . So, take it seriously, you know, just set a quota. Try to think of communicating with some ideal reader somewhere. Try to think of getting into print. Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience. “Read what excites you,” would be advice, and even if you don’t imitate it you will learn from it. . . . I would like to think that in a country this large–and a language even larger–that there ought to be a living in it for somebody who cares, and wants to entertain and instruct a reader.”

John Updike interview (do watch this…he reads an extract from one of his stories…..WOW! I want to write like that!!!!)

I’ve found my research on John Updike really inspiring, probably more than any of the Authors I’ve researched so far. I’m not sure why. The only book of his I recognize is The Witches of Eastwick, and even then, it’s only the film version I know. I LOVE his advice to young writers, about developing a work habit. I’ve tried to do that, but just recently, been a bit lapse. But it’s the whole idea of writing series that interests me. It seems very common nowadays with Fantasy and Crime Fiction, but you don’t often see it in other genres, or am I wrong there?

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30 thoughts on “U is for Updike

  1. Another great article Vikki. Love the advice, the words of writer-wisdom. It doesn’t only apply to young writers, we all need reminding. This post has inspired me to get my study de-cluttered – and reclaim my writing space! It’s there where I should write. In the winter I decamp to the kitchen, but the garden is a huge distraction. In future I shall get up, turn on my computer, and greet my characters over my first cup of tea. I’ll make them a cup!!! Thank you for another wonderful post, Vikki. x

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  2. Ah,Vikki … we are getting to the end and I am so loving all these great writers.
    “It’s always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You’d rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you’d rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you’ve enjoyed.”

    That was my favorite quote.

    No, there are some who write women’s fiction series. My friend Shelley Noble who also writes as Shelly Fredon’t has a current series of WF and uses the setting to bind them together. I am particularly fond of series because I love the idea that the reader can follow the main character from one book to the other and that the secondary characters are often used in each book to change the tenor of the story 🙂

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    • Thanks Florence, yep, we’re nearly there now lol

      Great quote that innit 🙂

      Ahhhhhh, thanks honey. Yeah, ive been thinking and i suddenly realised theres the Shopoholic series by Sophie Kinsella lol

      Thanks honey xx

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  3. I didn’t think I knew Updike, but I have, of course seen The Witches of Eastwick.
    As my own harshest critic, I’m going with the advice about not blaming myself for something I wasn’t trying to achieve…

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  4. The advice to have a routine is the best I’ve heard. It’s taken me ages to find a routine that suits me – and there will always be days when it’s not possible to write – but now that I have I’m much more relaxed. Also, not expecting too much of myself has been a relief. Instead of writing as much as I can whenever I can, I try to do 500 words a day. It may take a while to write my novel but I keep reminding myself that slow and steady wins the race! (I’ve also had to convince myself that it isn’t a race!)
    John Updike seems to be such a nice, warm, humble man. I haven’t read any of his books, but I think I’ll be having a look in Waterstones this weekend now! Thanks, Vikki!

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  5. Really like Updike’s advice and your addition right here: “Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.” That’s so important and the world of Twitter, Facebook, etc. makes that distance extra tricky.

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  6. Updike was a wise, prolific writer whose work I’ve read very little. Definitely my own fault. His guidelines for book reviews should be required reading, and I, too, love his advice for new writers. It applies to old writers as well.

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