The Movie Was Better, and It Sucked Too

I think Sam Tanenhaus needs a change of drawers after wetting himself in the NYTimes over Updike’s latest sleep aid, which just so happens to be the sequel to one of the worst novels I’ve ever read. And I’ve read after-the-fact novelizations of Star Trek films (they were better). I can’t imagine how Tanenhaus could be talking about the writer who made me actually seek out the dictionary definition of the word “turgid” to make sure it was sufficiently damning, when he wrote these lines:

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 completetness of its actual being.

The Witches of Eastwick—which took me three years to read, I might add, and was the inaugural tome of my “never let a bad book beat you” philosophy—was little more than a poorly managed collection of stereotypes couched in prose so dull it made my macroeconomics textbook seem thrilling by comparison. I was only five years old in 1984, but even then I would have been old enough to recognize Updike’s take on magic as an inauthentic rendering of the fantasy from a generation and a half prior, the sort of rubbish you tend to find when a literary “giant” takes on fantasy or science fiction as though no serious work has been done in the genre. When I encountered it in my early twenties it was borderline insulting (nevermind the witches themselves, who dip more into self-parody than even good satire could sustain, and really only come truly into their power once they get a good deep-dicking from a dirty old man with the gift of incantation, only to lose in the process whatever superficial nonsense Updike thought qualified as “femininity”).

The thought of a sequel brings the aftertaste of Buckley’s to my mouth, and Tanenhaus’ praise is so blind (he seriously believes that sentence fragments like “children were burying their faces in paper cones of cotton candy, and trying to open their mouths wide enough to bite through the thick glaze of candy apples” are among America’s best writing? Who in God’s name gave him the reigns at the Times if that isn’t hyperbole?) that it reminds me of Robertson Davies’ early praise of Stephen Leacock, which he came to regret, and wisely tempered with a measure of rational critical thought as time went on. If this tops the best sellers list I will lose all faith in the reading public.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.