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In the spirit of keeping things light at this time of year when the food and the body can start feeling just a little heavy, here’s the Guardian‘s update on one of my favorite annual awards—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction.

You gotta love it, these laughable attempts to describe one of life’s greatest thrills. Ever since a writer friend confessed to me that she suffered from crippling fear while writing her novel that she would be nominated for this ignoble award, I have had a little more pity for nominees. Ouch. While of course some people treat it as just one more google hit.

At the end of the Guardian article I have also included an excerpt from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat blog flagging John Updike’s lifetime achievement award. The passage highlighted is just too good to not share. “Legs in an M of receptivity”…really John. John? Hello?

Thank you Sally Reed for being all over it and way ahead of me.

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‘Slightly tortuous’: Alastair Campbell. Photograph: Luke MacGregor/Reuters

Alastair Campbell’s depiction of a gauche sexual encounter in his debut novel All in the Mind has won him a place on the shortlist for the literary world’s most dreaded honour: the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.

Campbell would join luminaries including Tom Wolfe, AA Gill, Sebastian Faulks and Melvyn Bragg if he wins the award – a plaster foot – on November 25 at London’s aptly named In and Out club. Run by the Literary Review, the bad sex awards were set up by Auberon Waugh “with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels”.

The former spin doctor may take heart from the implication that his debut is an “otherwise sound literary novel”. Campbell of course has some earlier practice in depicting sex, having written pornography for Forum magazine under the pseudonym the Riviera Gigolo early in his career, but a passage set on a bench has catapulted Campbell onto the list: “He wasn’t sure where his penis was in relation to where he wanted it to be, but when her hand curled around it once more, and she pulled him towards her, it felt right,” Campbell writes. “Then as her hand joined the other on his neck and she started making more purring noises, now with little squeals punctuating them, he was pretty sure he was losing his virginity.”

But Campbell’s prose is considerably less purple than some of the other contenders for this year’s prize, including new age novelist Paulo Coelho for his novel Brida, in which the act of sex – on a public footpath – is described as “the moment when Eve was reabsorbed into Adam’s body and the two halves became Creation”.

“At last, she could no longer control the world around her,” Coelho continues, “her five senses seemed to break free and she wasn’t strong enough to hold on to them. As if struck by a sacred bolt of lightning, she unleashed them, and the world, the seagulls, the taste of salt, the hard earth, the smell of the sea, the clouds, all disappeared, and in their place appeared a vast gold light, which grew and grew until it touched the most distant star in the galaxy.”

Historian Simon Montefiore is also a strong competitor, singled out for his first foray into fiction, the Soviet saga Sashenka, in which a formerly prudish Communist woman enjoys an encounter with a bohemian writer. “He pulled down her brassiere, cupping her breasts, sighing in bliss. ‘The blue veins are divine,’ he whispered.” And later: “He’s a madman, she thought as he made love to her again. Oh my God, after twenty years of being the most rational Bolshevik woman in Moscow, this goblin has driven me crazy!”

Other writers in the running include John Updike, Isabel Fonseca, Kathy Lette and James Buchan, as well as first-time novelist Ann Allestree for her novel Triptych of a Young Wolf.

“It’s very heartening to see what a distinguished list of writers seem to be listed with me,” said Allestree. “I wrote the book because I had written memoirs and biographies, and thought every writer has to do a novel, it’s a force majeure. So I set off to do it, and thought I’ve got to put sex in – every novel’s got to have sex in it.”

She said her novel was “essentially quite a serious one”. “It’s about wolves,” she continued. “There is wolf sex, between my young wolf, my hero, and his girlfriend, who happens to be an Alsatian … they have hybrid sex.”

If an extract from Allestree’s novel – here depicting sex between humans, rather than canines – is anything to go by, she should be in with a good chance: few novelists successfully manage to combine soup and sex. “He raised himself to his knees and bent to roll his tongue around her weeping orifice. He was bringing her to a pitch of ecstasy when she heard Madame Veuve, on the landing, put down the supper tray. Whiffs of onion soup strayed over them as he engulfed her. ‘Don’t stop,’ she clamoured; she was nearly there, it was in the bag.”

Jonathan Beckman at the Literary Review said there had been “quite a lot of variation” in this year’s shortlist in terms of how, exactly, the sex was bad. “There are some which take the sex far too seriously, like Coelho, and some which have a grating change of register, like Buchan, and others that are just slightly ridiculous,” he said. “The Campbell seems quite Alastair Campbelly-bad, in the slightly tortuous logical path the passage takes … and also, we wouldn’t pass up the chance to put Alastair Campbell on a bad sex shortlist.”

Last year’s award was given posthumously to Norman Mailer for his final novel The Castle in the Forest, in which a male member is described as being “as soft as a coil of excrement”. “It was the excrement that tipped the balance,” admitted Philip Womack, assistant editor of the Literary Review, at the time.

Alison Flood
Guardian

And from Media Bistro’s GalleyCat:

Updike won the lifetime achievement award after being nominated four times over the course of his career. Here’s a link to Updike’s shortlisted passage from 2005 Bad Sex nominee, Villages:

“Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare a** to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.”

OK. This is getting intense. Everyone in this house has become a political junkie of the worst kind. We start off the morning with a full perusal of the New York Times and the Boston Globe. Then after a day’s worth of work that gets punctuated with periodic flyovers of no less than 14 political websites, we keep the flow of this steady drip going with our favorite TV talking head, the smart, sassy and liberally reassuring Rachel Maddow, topped off with that last hour of deftly sardonic humor by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I’m teetering so far forward I’m off my heels with hyperventilated hope. Yet November 4th feels like it will never come, that this 8 year nightmare will never sputter out and we’ll spin in its madness forever. There’s more residue of resentment and anger in me than I’d like to admit.

So here’s a palliative that has helped quiet my inner madness. A review of John Updike’s latest novel in New York Times, The Widows of Eastwick, thankfully distracted my imagination and my thoughts.

I’m not as worshipful as Sam Tanenhaus, but damn it, Updike IS good. His subject matter often becomes a tad annoying for me—enough with the endless tales of adultery and betrayal, John—but there are many visual artists who apply a spectacularly gifted hand to subject matter that isn’t as compelling as their aesthetic gifts. So I have had to learn to compartmentalize. Besides, Updike is now 76 and he hasn’t lost his groove. As Tanenhaus says in his review, “he still wrings more from a sentence than almost anyone else. His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page.” Defying the cultural bias that assumes that creative output is the domain of the very young is a big theme for me as many of my readers of this blog know.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

John Updike is the great genial sorcerer of American letters. His output alone (60 books, almost 40 of them novels or story collections) has been supernatural. More wizardly still is the ingenuity of his prose. He has now written tens of thousands of sentences, many of them tiny miracles of transubstantiation whereby some hitherto overlooked datum of the human or natural world — from the anatomical to the zoological, the socio-economic to the spiritual — emerges, as if for the first time, in the complete ness of its actual being.

This isn’t writing. It is magic. And it’s not surprising that the author who practices it should be drawn repeatedly to the other, darker kind, though it is often masked in droll comedy. In the 1960s, surveying the field in the literary rat race, Updike put a hex, collectively, on the Jewish novelists (Bellow, Mailer, Malamud, Roth) then looming as his chief competition. He invented a wickedly funny composite parody, Henry Bech, whom he entraps in a web of debilitating spells, from hydrophobia to sleep-anxiety. At one point Bech squanders the best part of a work morning on the toilet, “leafing sadly through Commentary and Encounter,” journals not often hospitable to Updike’s own fiction. Lest we, or his rivals, miss the drift, Updike afflicts Bech with the cruelest curse of all, writer’s block, which leaves him unable to begin, much less finish, his next novel. “Am I blocked? I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist,” Bech weakly jokes to Bea, his current emasculating Gentile mistress, who has supplanted her even more emasculating sister in Bech’s bed. “What do you do,” Bea sneers in reply, “hit the space bar once a day?”…

The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream’s hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased. “My first books met the criticism that I wrote all too well but had nothing to say,” he once ruefully noted. “My own style seemed to me a groping and elemental attempt to approximate the complexity of envisioned phenomena, and it surprised me to have it called luxuriant and self-indulgent; self-indulgent, surely, is exactly what it wasn’t —other- indulgent, rather.”

That other, he asserted, added up to nothing less than “the whole mass of middling, hidden, troubled America.” No writer of our time has reached into it so deeply or conjured so many of its mysteries so pulsingly to life.