by Ted Gioia

A critic in the New York Times once called them the
Great Male Novelists—and, no, it wasn’t intended
as a compliment.  John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul
Bellow and Norman Mailer may have first made
their names as free spirits and prophets of
liberation—in that capacity, I've seen their names
linked with a motley crew, that also includes Hugh
Hefner, Lenny Bruce and
Woody Allen—but in time
they became inextricably
linked with a pronounced
masculinist—in the minds
of some critics, misogynist
—perspective in American
fiction that flourished
during the second half of
the 20th century.

Of course, the attacks did
not come solely from a
feminist perspective.  Others,
finding an easy target, took their best shots.  
Foster Wallace called them "the Great Male
Narcissists"—and, in a fine quip, dubbed Updike as
the leading chronicler of "the single most self-
absorbed generation since Louis XIV." Yet Wallace
then went on to admit that he had read 25 of
Updike's books—apparently he liked to decorate
his mind with
Louis Quatorze.  On the other
extreme, parents in Medicine Bow, Wyoming
rejected Updike's work for its frankness and
profanity, while as recently as 2010, Updike’s
writing was kept out of Texas jails in order to
"protect the safety and security of our institution,
but also aid in the rehabilitation of our offenders."  
(I gleefully imagine apprehended recidivists with
copies of
The Centaur and Bech: A Book mixed in
with the loot from their latest bank heist.)

That said, women have been even tougher on
Updike than the Texas Department of Criminal
Justice.  "Updike provides no blameless way of
being female," Margaret Atwood has complained.   
Wendy Lesser has labeled Updike as a "thorough
misogynist." "It was the way he depicted women,"
Anna Shapiro has explained. “It was the way he
described them – us. You felt yourself squirming,
wanting to pull a blanket over you, preferably lead-
lined, to shield yourself from the merest stray
phrase or casual observation.”

Did Updike care?  Around the time he published
The Witches of Eastwick, the author noted "I've been
criticized for making the women in my books
subsidiary to the men."   So what better way to
address these concerns than by putting three
women at the forefront of his latest novel?  

Ah, the esteemed Mr. Updike, now softened by his
entry into late middle age, was turning a new leaf.   
Hardly!  The three women in question—Alexandra
Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougemont—are
smarmy, manipulative, caustic and catty.  And did I
mention that they are witches?   Something about
the fictional Rhode Island town of Eastwick is
apparently conducive to channeling and fortifying
women’s supernatural powers.  As a result, these
three amigas terrorize the local community, and it's
hard to tell who fares worse, their friends or their

The novel is not without its precedents.  Fritz
Leiber relied on a similar concept two decades
earlier—a little less acerbically—in his novel
Conjure Wife.  And Updike, for all the ammo he
directs on his female leads, will never top Flaubert
in trenchant  and unforgiving portrayal of the
bêtises of fair sex.  Yet the most obvious role model
here is
Macbeth, explicitly referenced in Updike’s
novel—"tamale and tamale and tamale," witch Jane
proclaims in anticipation of a Mexican dinner—in
which three Shakespearean witches dished out their
own sizable helpings of toil and trouble.  

Updike offers blacker humor than any of these role
models, and his book is at his best when it is most
irreverent.  Our three sorceresses have no
monopoly on sacrilege here.  Their shared love
interest, a new arrival in Eastwick named Darryl
Van Horne, can give them stiff competition.  At
one point in this novel, Updike lets his male lead
deliver a guest sermon at the local Unitarian church
on a subject of his own choosing—his topic turns
out to be "This is a Terrible Creation."  The
interlude does little to advance the plot, but
showcases Updike's zest in the outrageous and
transgressive.  This section of the novel, which
reads like Hunter Thompson delivering a mix-and-
match school book report on "The Grand
Inquisitor" and
The Selfish Gene, could stand-alone
as a set piece or, with the addition of a few more
one-liners, work as a comedy stand-up routine.

Throughout much of this book, however, Updike
seems to waver between two opposed approaches
for his novel.  For long stretches he remains
determined to present a sober and fastidiously
detailed "landscape" novel—one that captures this
part of Rhode Island in the same way that Cormac
McCarthy evokes the US-Mexico border region or
William Faulkner celebrates Yoknapatawpha
County.  Paragraphs stretch out over two or more
pages, filled with references to geology, plant life,
weather patterns, and local color.  Sometimes
Updike is overly fond in showing off the minutiae
of his research—although, I hasten to add in his
defense that this type of writing had more clout
before the age of Googling, when the most obscure
facts are only a few keystrokes away—but the better
passages are quite breathtaking.  

Here’s an example:

"The winter passed.  In the darkroom of overnight
blizzards, New England picture postcards were
developed;  the morning's sunshine displayed them
in color.  The not-quite-straight sidewalks of Dock
Street, shoveled in patches, manifested patterns of
compressed bootprints, like dirty white cookies
with treads….The town itself in winter, deprived of
tourists, settled more compactly upon itself, like a
log fire burning late into the evening.  A dwindled
band of teen-agers hung out in front of the
Superette, waiting for the psychedelic-painted VW
van the drug dealer from South Providence
drove….Martyrs of a sort were these children, along
with the town drunk, in his basketball sneakers and
buttonless overcoast….martyrs too of a sort were
the men and women hastening to adulterous trysts,
risking disgrace and divorce for their fix of motel
love—all sacrificing the outer world to the inner,
proclaiming with this priority that everything solid-
seeming and substantial is in fact a dream, of less
account than a merciful rush of feeling."

I find it revealing that Updike is most powerful in
conveying the particularities of place when he
makes people part of the landscape.  Here
adulterers and drug addicts constitute the local
fauna.  In this regard, Updike is fundamentally
different from those authors who can commune
directly with nature—like Dr. Frankenstein, he
needs the human element, the pulse, the flow of
blood in the veins, the respiration, and plenty of
body organs (usually below the belt ones for this
author) to bring his creations to life.

Hence I am not surprised that the best descriptive
passages here—as with the sermon above,
throwaway set pieces about a tennis game and the
performance of Bach's cello suites stand out—are
never still lifes, but always imbued with passion and
sometimes considerable angst.  The fuel that drives
an Updike novel is invariably the frictive human
element, which constitutes the second novel hidden
between the interstices of Updike's Rhode Island
period piece.  The machinations of his three witches
and their agendas—usually hidden, partially or
wholly—with family, lovers, fellow citizens and the
alluring Mr. Van Horne provide the animating
spark here.  So much so that these sections tend to
eclipse in your memory the sober, elegant writing
that Updike periodically inserts to ground his
fantastic story in everyday New England life.

For all its flaws, the novel has considerable
panache.  Updike himself was charmed enough by
his creation to write a sequel, and Hollywood was
even more charmed—funding a big budget film of
The Witches of Eastwick with Jack Nicholson, Cher,
Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer in the star-
studded cast.   That said, the book did nothing to
endear Mr. Updike to his feminist critics, and
tended to elicit even more criticism from that
quarter than his earlier novels.  I suspect, however,
that was part of Mr. Updike’s own hidden agenda
from the start.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular
culture.  His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
The Witches of Eastwick
by John Updike
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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