John Updike: Homophobic Critic

Slate resets a 1999 John Updike review in which he pretty clearly defined himself as homophobic (quote below). I bring this up since I’ve been discussing House of Holes lately, and Updike is just about as big a god as Nicholson Baker has. We’ll obviously never know what Updike would have thought of the book, but as Barrett notes in critique of the book in Lady Chatterley’s Brother, Baker’s sexual utopia–which many critics have pointed out is a virtual cornucopia of transgressive sex–is strictly hetero.

Which, in my opinion, only adds to Barrett’s argument that this was essentially Baker trying to get himself off.

Anyway, here’s the quote from Slate:

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.

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So, John Updike is a homophobe, partly, for about Hollinghurst’s characters ,” . . . they are relentlessly gay . . .”, yet Mr. Barrett and the “. . . many critics . . .” are not like-wise labeled but rather are credited with something like ‘unerring observation'(?), in writing about Mr. Baker’s characters as “strictly hetero.”

I’d say that’s a double standard.

The previous comment should read, ” . . . partly, for writing about . . .”

@Gs actually Updike is a homophobe for arguing “against gay love as a compelling novelistic subject” and for universalizing his reaction of disgust when presented with beautiful writing about queer sex — particularly given the equally lush and detailed treatment he gave hetero sex in his many novels. And “relentlessly gay” does have a pretty pejorative ring to it, by the way, you must admit. I doubt that Baker is a homophobe, but it is a bit odd that there is no queer sex whatever in a supposed erotic utopia with something for everybody.

Big surprise, Updike was not all about the gays. He also, guess what, says some borderline and foolish stuff about women and people of other races.

Is this news at all? Are we really surprised that some dude born in the middle of Pennsylvania in the Great Depression doesn’t have views on homosexuality that conform to present-day urban mores?

In the interest of honesty, I did see ‘homophobe’ as an affront to a writer, reviewer in particular, whom I greatly admire.

Here is my self-serving response, which is a response to the entire subject, not just Jeremy Hatch’s concerns.

I would rather read ‘Dark Matter and It’s Effects on Literature’ than ‘Why John Updike is a Homophobe.’

Gauging the past by present standards is tiresome. Most writers before ten years ago appear to be homophobes and most before the 1960s appear to be racists. Okay? Fine, it’s established. Move on. Big deal.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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