John Updike's Homophobic Book Review
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. ... 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.
Updike’s review did cause at least some stir at the time. The writer and activist Larry Kramer “circulated an e-mail alert among gay writers” after the review was published, as the New York Observer reported. “It really feels like an attack,” Tony Kushner said to the Observer of the review; Sarah Schulman called it “outrageous,” and wrote a letter to The New Yorker (which was not, so far as I can tell, ever published).
The Observer also spoke to Updike, and he proceeded to dig himself sadly deeper:
I’d be happy not to discuss [homosexuality]. Hollinghurst made it kind of tough. It makes it the unavoidable topic of discussion. It’s all about it. And for me to avoid his own emphasis would certainly be not doing my reviewer’s job.Updike makes it sound as though the controversy was that he referred to gay sex at all, not that he spoke about it in a bigoted manner. (That he would have been “happy not to discuss it” appears to indicate his fundamental discomfort with the subject.)
And yet the incident seems to have been largely forgotten. ... I’d have to read further in Updike’s work, or at least reread what fiction of his I have read, before I could say whether I agree with Toíbín that Updike’s apparent prejudice damaged his fiction. But it certainly resulted in at least one rather terrible review.
Well, that's big of you.
Here's a more general question about trends in American culture. In the 20th Century, African-Americans were clearly a rising group in terms of cultural contributions. But, that doesn't seem to be obviously true anymore. Instead, as blacks lost the urge to impress whites that they could do just as good, they've settled down to certain cultural ghettos they can dominate (basketball, rap, unfortunate baby names, etc.) and don't seem to be contributing as much anymore. Over the last couple of years, as the national spell of silliness in making a non-entity like Barack Obama president because has become more evident, we've started to see hints that blacks are losing their Most Favored Group status.
The whip hand in American culture seems to be shifting toward gays, as their punishing of various black basketballers and comedians over the last couple of years demonstrates. But here's the question: are gays, in their moment of political political triumphalism, doing all that much that's culturally interesting right now? Or are they sidetracking their energies into petty political vendettas like this denunciation of the late John Updike?
I mean, 50 years ago, a bunch of gays and bis who wanted to put on a show would get together and make, say, West Side Story, which is really, really good. It's also not directly about Being Gay, which has to sneak in via metaphor and art. Since then, eh... The irony is that right now, the most talked about musical on Broadway is by the South Park guys.