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Tessa Hadley on John Updike

Lots to think about here. To start with, this is the first New Yorker fiction podcast I’ve heard where they actually criticize the author instead of just celebrating him and saying how perfect the story is. This time, they went right at it, with the interviewer, Deborah Treisman, passing along some criticisms of Updike and then Hadley discussing that. It was great.

Hadley also said something that reminded me of a post that I just wrote regarding the analogy between drawing and statistical modeling. Unfortunately now that I’m typing this, I don’t remember what it was that Hadley said! And the interview does not seem to have a transcript.


  1. jim says:

    Updike is dead. No need to promote the guy anymore.

    • Andrew says:


      Sure, but I’ve heard other New Yorker fiction podcasts on dead authors, and this is the first one where they’ve been at all critical.

      • jim says:

        Sure, I believe that. Just the same I think it’s a lot harder to piss off dead people than living ones, so it’s possible there’s something to it.

        • Jukka says:

          I’ve never read Updike (though Roth etc.; sure), but, now, maybe I’ll will, given the unprecedented disinformation, harassment, smear, hate, and you-name-it campaign launched against a single random nobody in the Internet. Granted, some of it has been kind of funny and even insightful, and I never stop wondering how lies and s*it spread in the Internet.

          But you know that some lines have been crossed when random nutcases around the world send nasty dead threats etc., etc.

          Maybe it is this line that should be discussed through both “fact” (a.k.a. science/scholarship) and fiction? How does the latter become the former, and when does the “hyperreality” (a’la Baudrillard) become the reality? Were the POMOs right all along? If so, or even a little so, what roles do statistics and measurements play? Personally, I’ve come to a conclusion that the hoaxes of science wars were hoaxes were hoaxes; we still need both to explain these weird new times.

  2. Jay Livingston says:

    It sounds as though Treisman had been awakened by #metoo; Hadley, not so much. They don’t exactly come close to David Foster Wallace’s take on Updike — “a penis with a thesauras.”

    I remember hearing Updike’s “Unstuck” (maybe on this podcast, maybe Selected Shorts) about a man and woman trying to get drive their car out of the snow. The story is a great big double entendre — getting the car up and running written about as though it were sex. It seemed to me at the time (I haven’t reread it) like something written by a smirking 13-year old boy . . .with a thesaurus.

    • Andrew says:


      Regarding the me-too issue, I remember hearing a New Yorker fiction podcast from years ago, it was a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer featuring a rabbi, I think it was, who ran out on his young wife and she tracked him down and it turned out he was gay and living in some other town with a cantor. Anyway, one thing that I remember in the story and then the discussion was that the cantor would seduce the young rabbinical students, and in the context of the story it was seen as a kind of charming thing. Treisman seemed amused by it too. The interview was, I dunno, 12 years ago, but I was listening to it pretty recently, and it struck me that nowadays it would be harder to treat that with gentle amusement.

  3. John Bullock says:

    David Foster Wallace’s take on Updike — “a penis with a thesauras.”

    That wasn’t Wallace’s take. You can read his actual review for yourself. It’s very critical of a particular book, but in the review, Wallace also allows that he is “one of very few actual sub-40 Updike fans.”

    The line that you quoted is in the review, but Wallace attributes the line to someone else, whom he doesn’t name.

  4. Renzo Alves says:

    In the future everyone will be reassessed according to the norms and payoff structures of the time. No one will be immune. It’s like blaming everyone for not being you. We are living in especially narcissistic times courtesy of social media apps.

  5. Adede says:

    You want to see some criticism of Updike? Check this out:

    “I was hired​ as an assassin. You don’t bring in a 37-year-old woman to review John Updike in the year of our Lord 2019 unless you’re hoping to see blood on the ceiling.”

  6. John Bullock says:

    Thank you, Andrew. This interview with Tessa Hadley is great; she is actually eloquent at times. It’s rare to be eloquent in interviews.

    Treisman and Hadley start by talking about James Wood’s review of Licks of Love. It’s a review that makes a few excellent points, perhaps especially about the self-undermining aspect of his vocabulary and style.

    Wood’s review also closes with an incisive take on the stylistic ambition that underpins the Rabbit novels: “how to log America’s vulgarity and materialism without the books themselves becoming those things.”

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