Sex Ed With John Updike

The promotional patter for Rod Liddle‘s Little’s essay in the London Times suggests he’ll argue that John Updike made a lot of good authors write badly about sex. But Liddle Little mainly wants to send a mash note to Updike’s 1968 novel, Couples, which he argues was among the first post-war novels that helped make writing about sex seem like a serious literary pursuit. (And perhaps, made contemporary literature seem like a worthwhile pursuit; I wasn’t exactly reading the Rabbit novels for the naughty bits when I was a freshman in high school, but I certainly came away from them feeling more clued in about the private lives of grown-ups.)

Liddle Little may have a point about Updike being among the first to legitimize highly sexualized fiction for American mass audiences, though 1968 was a complicated year in general, and was also the year that Gore Vidal‘s Myra Breckinridge was published; prior to Couples, other novels about sex that got mass audiences were either dismissed as trashy (Peyton Place) or reached shelves thanks only to a great heaving of legal machinery (Tropic of Cancer). It would be years before Fear of Flying or Portnoy’s Complaint or Behind the Green Door or whatever 70s touchstone of your choosing made talking about sex in public less shameful.

Liddle Little soberly makes his case for bad sex in literature—and for Updike’s recent failures—but also inserts a provocative statement that’ll force me to pick up Couples and give it a better read than I did at 14:

Couples, though, has it all. It is Updike’s most experimental — with long passages of stream of consciousness, replete with rich, maybe at times too rich, imagery — yet also his most disciplined. The story is of serial infidelity among 10 fairly young, fairly well-to-do couples living in the fictional Massachusetts town of Tarbox, and particularly the calamitous affair between the two protagonists, Piet Hanema and Foxy Whitman. Their milieu — affluent, comfortable, companionable, surreptitiously adulterous — is as beguiling and attractive as it is corrupt. I still cannot think of a better novel from the past 50 or 60 years, unfashionable though it might be to say as much.


The D.C.-Area Readings page is updated. Some events for the coming week worth your notice if you’re nearby: Mike Sager, reading from his new collection of Esquire pieces, Wounded Warriors; John Adams, whose memoir, Hallelujah Junction, I’m currently reading; and a screening of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about troubled bookstores, screening at Vertigo Books, a troubled bookstore.

3 thoughts on “Sex Ed With John Updike

  1. Gah! Thank you for the heads-up, and my apologies to Mr. Liddle. No judgment intended—just a function of posting at 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. (Maybe I was subconsciously arguing for the importance of editors….)

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