John Updike

The WASPy chronicler of middle-class angst on sex, religion, reality TV, and the death of his subject.

(Details, June/July 2006. Photo: Jake Chessum)

Q: You’re a Christian, churchgoing person; how do you justify all the sex in your work?

A: Well, it exists, and there’s no denying it. And not even the Bible denies it as a powerful force. Freud tells us it’s really the only force. So I can’t be apologetic. It’s what makes the world go round. Christian or not, churchgoer or not, you sort of have to describe—but then I guess I describe it with a certain zeal and ardor of a deprived adolescence. It’s good in a way to be somewhat repressed growing up, because it leaves something more to express.

Q: With all the casual sex that teenagers seem to engage in now, I wonder if the act itself has lost its mystery.

A: Freud says that for the tide of libido to swell to its height, it needs an obstacle. And there is something about the loss of all these repressive forces that makes people less sexy.

Q: What do you think of the fundamentalist-Christian movement here?

A: I know how they feel—it’s the way my young character feels in my new book. His faith feels threatened by the modern world. But that’s the way it is. And you have to learn to live with it, and if you choose to keep some faith, you have to realize that you’re doing it kind of against the cultural tide.

Q: The middle class is disappearing. Where did it go?

A: In a city like New York, you’re aware of the rich and poor. You get outside the major cities, and you see them in their habitat—mowing their lawns, having their Saturday-night cookouts, and whatever else the middle class does. But it’s a stressful world, and increasingly expensive. We were comfortable enough [in the 1950s] not to be preoccupied by work and money, the way my father’s generation had been. And the middle class could afford the luxuries of fine living, which included dinner parties and, I guess, adultery. It was one of the by-products of the kind of cozy, friendly, self-enclosed economic existence. I think it is no longer—you can no longer just do your job, by the way. Your job is either your—what’s the word?—obsession, or you’re not good enough.

Q: Can there be an Updike today, a Hemingway, a guy who turns out volumes over a lifetime?

A: There is a make-it-big-or-you’re-out mentality in publishing. And publishers are not, unlike when I was young, willing to carry an author who never makes it big—does respectable work and has a small following. So no, I don’t think you’re going to see another Hemingway or even another Mailer. I just don’t think there’s the ability of the writer to grab the reader’s attention—and it’s the sort of thing that could be proved wrong tomorrow. Somebody can come along who produces books that people feel compelled to read.

Q: Do you ever watch reality-TV shows, like American Idol?

A: I don’t! I get kind of embarrassed for everyone and get upset because they all involve the cruelty of being eliminated. Much of the glee of it seems to be the joy of seeing someone put down. I don’t know—I could be wrong about that.