Has Updike's Hatred for the Web Hurt His Writing?

Posted on August 22, 2008

John Keenan of The Guardian reviews John Updike's latest book, The Widows of Eastwick (a follow up to The Witches of Eastwick) and concludes that Updike's freely admitted aversion to the Internet, blogs and other modern conveniences is destroying his writing ability. Keenan says that he can't relate to the characters, who write each other letters and use landlines to communicate.

The novelist has never hidden his hatred of the web. Is it any wonder, then, that his recent books read like tepid postcards from the past?

In his latest novel, The Widows of Eastwick, which will be published in October, John Updike puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: "...print doesn't mean to people what it used to, it may be. A considerable number get what news they need off the internet. They don't need much. Sports, celebrities. For self-advertisement there's all this blogging. It's amazing to me that anyone has time to read such crap, but I guess they do."

*****

As I struggled to make my way through this tepid follow-up to The Witches of Eastwick, it struck me that the irrelevance of the novel was not entirely due to the fact that it laboriously details the aches and pains of white, middle-class American matrons. Rather, its insignificance lies in the fact the characters inhabit a world that has disappeared. When they are not gossiping on land line telephones, the three widows write long information-strewn letters to each other which they despatch via the mail. It's been a long time since my postman delivered anything other than final demands and takeaway flyers. Sukie, one of the main characters, is dismayed to find upon returning to Eastwick that the rather smart local newspaper she helped produce has been closed down and replace by a cheap Xeroxed sheet. Xerox? Even the smallest hamlets now have their dedicated websites providing details on the latest ominous planning development and a 24-hour webcam trained on the duck pond.

Wow, that's pretty harsh. In all fairness to Updike, the characters have aged quite a bit since the last book. On the other hand, we know plenty of grandmothers who use digital phones, IM their grandkids and surf the Web. Unfortunately, both The Guardian and Publisher's Weekly describe the book as "tepid", which is never a good sign.