Is Updike Just a “Penis With a Thesaurus?”

The novelist David Foster Wallace was a big fan of John Updike’s work. No wonder. As I wrote before, Updike is an English major’s sort of writer. He makes you want to write better yourself. But big fans are also the biggest critics and David Foster Wallace is merciless in a critical review of one of Updike’s later efforts called Toward the End of Time. In the review (a total pan), Wallace gives birth to one of the most pervasive quotes about John Updike:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

I love that it is an anonymous quote, and so tightly constructed I have to assume it is more Wallace’s than it is the nameless female it’s attributed to. But step back a second and look at the context. Here’s more of Wallace’s essay with the quote in context:

Most of the literary readers I know personally are under 40, and a fair number are female, and none of them are big admirers of the postwar G.M.N.’s [Great Male Narcissists]. But it’s Mr. Updike in particular they seem to hate. And not merely his books, for some reason — mention the poor man himself and you have to jump back:

“Just a penis with a thesaurus.”

“Has the son of a bitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

“Makes misogyny seem literary the same way Limbaugh makes fascism seem funny.”

These are actual — trust me — quotations, and I’ve heard even worse ones, and they’re all usually accompanied by the sort of facial expression where you can tell there’s not going to be any profit in arguing or talking about the esthetic pleasure of Mr. Updike’s prose.

So, if you haven’t read any Updike before, you’re going to ask “What’s the big deal? Is it really true that he’s a misogynist?” Well… Um….

Like any very intelligent writer Updike builds his product with complication and defense, failsafe and double-meaning, so if you call his writing misogynistic he can say, “It’s satire.” Call it onanism and oversexed and he’ll say, “Don’t hate the messenger. Hate the character.” Or even better, “Why are you repressing? Everyone thinks it. I just write it down.” Or, a favorite ego-booster from my family, “If I’m feeling it, it must be true.”

Looking at the New York Times-devised graphic above, which comes from an article on this subject, you see they set Updike in the old narcissism school where his trade is meted out in measures of guilt, quasi-religious undertones, and disappointment (Read: New England WASP). This is true, but an oversimplification. Every adjective in that graphic figures in Updike’s work, and more besides. Still, it’s hard to stop the avalanche of opinion that Updike isn’t doing any favors for women.

This book we’re reading is from the perspective of women. So how’s he doing here? Well, let’s go to the tape. There is a fantastic exchange on this issue in the famous Tub Scene where the witches are taken naked into the sinister Darryl Van Horne’s pleasure palace and to his hot tub, talking about nothing. Darryl, in trying to show his feminine side offers this comment to the witches Alexandra and Jane:

“Do you know,” Van Horne stated… “the whole witchcraft scare was an attempt… on the part of the newly arising male-dominated medical profession… to get the childbirth business out of the hands of midwives. That’s what a lot of the women burned were – midwives…”

“Typical,” said Jane abrasively… “If there’s one thing that infuriates me more than male chauvs… it’s creeps who take up feminism just to work their way into women’s underpants.”

…”But baby you’re not even wearing underpants,” Alexandra pointed out.

Van Horne is trying to empathize with these women, and he’ll keep it up, saying women are tougher, braver, etc. But the witch Jane calls him on this, only to get teased by her companion. Maybe this is Updike giving a nod to the role of feminism in literature, then chiding himself for sucking up, then chiding  the criticism. Sheesh.

This sort of apology for Eastwick weakens as the book progresses, though. I’ve never read a major work of literature by a woman that contained this much material about women fixating on pure, physical pleasure. The witches have bath after bath where they oil each other, masturbate one another, get screwed by Van Horne and then talk to one another about how it feels, how his fluids taste…  Is there any woman out there that would not say this is a bit of a male fantasy? Or, like Van Horne, am I as a male also playing the defensive, trying to pretend to be a feminist by being turned off by all this sex? One thing you can say about the book, it has me thinking.


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