John Updike’s Homophobic Book Review

David Haglund

On this week’s Culture Gabfest, in a discussion of the new movie Weekend (which all of the gabbers love), Stephen Metcalf mentions a controversial book review by John Updike. The words “controversial,” “book review,” and “John Updike” may not seem like obvious bedfellows, but actually he made them something of a habit in his later years, as Gawker noted in 2008.

And yet that Gawker post didn’t mention the review Metcalf had in mind: This one, from 1999 (subscription required; you can also read much of it on Google Books), was Updike’s take on The Spell, a novel by Alan Hollinghurst about four gay men in England in the mid-’90s. Here is the very first sentence of Updike’s review:

The novels of the English writer Alan Hollinghurst take some getting used to; they are relentlessly gay in their personnel, and after a while you begin to long for the chirp and swing and civilizing animation of a female character.

It doesn’t get better from there. Updike says the readers’ “noses are rubbed” by Hollinghurst “in the poetry of a love object’s anus,” going on to quote some of the novel’s strikingly elegant (and, yes, sexually explicit) descriptive prose. This would be fairly unremarkable were it coming from a critic other than Updike, whose “treatment of sex” in his own fiction was described (by Wilfrid Sheed) as “that of a fictional biochemist approaching mankind with a tray of hypersensitive gadgets.”

And Updike didn’t just express discomfort at the Hollinghurst’s precise, physically detailed observations about gay sex: He actually wrote a kind of brief against gay love as a compelling novelistic subject. “Boredom swoops in without heterosexual clutter to obstruct its advent,” he wrote; “nothing is at stake but self-gratification.” He went on:

Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish overestimations, and inflamed phsyical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient, sacralized structures of the family.

In other words, I guess, if God wanted there to be great gay novels, he wouldn’t have made us this way.

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71154092 John Updike listens during a press conference at the United Nations, 2006.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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