John Updike's 1968 novel, COUPLES, is by far his best selling ever, yet not the most critically acclaimed. COUPLES was number two on the best selling fiction list for 1968 (180,858 copies sold), but just one other time has Mr. Updike made it back to the top sellers list. When he did so his book was only number ten (RABBIT REDUX, 1971). Over the years, however, he has published a number of novels and collections of short stories. Although these are all reviewed as well or better than COUPLES, not one comes close to equaling its popularity. This makes the question of the book's popularity even more interesting: What in COUPLES that is not in other Updike novels enticed readers? The predominant factor for the novel's popularity will be argued here to be its subject matter of sex paired with its author's literary ability. Although Updike often deals with sex, in COUPLES he does so with blunt description. Under this umbrella, aspects such as Updike's use of voyeurism, stock characters, religious symbolism, and a depiction of moral ambiguity will also be examined.
COUPLES' popularity was limitedly correlated to contemporaneous movements and events. Within the realm of best selling fiction, the trend in 1968 (and 1967) was suspense novels. 80 YEARS OF BEST SELLERS notes , "It was suspense in various forms from the excitement of a floundering plane in AIRPORT to the espionage of THE SALZBURG CONNECTION and A SMALL TOWN IN GERMANY and the political tensions of PRESERVE AND PROTECT, VANISHED, and THE TOWER OF BABEL." COUPLES stands apart from this trend, yet still sold more than all but AIRPORT. A trend, however, which COUPLES did not stand apart from was to be uninfluenced by political goings-on. 80 YEARS OF BEST SELLERS states that, "Few national or international events were mirrored in the 1968's best sellers-- more were to come in the '70's." This absence of political influence is manifested in a conscious indifference of the characters. Freddy the dentist, and his patient, hear over the radio the news of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. He is not exactly distraught, and continues the dental procedure he is in the middle of after a moment's pause:
Freddy held the drill away from her mouth. "You hear that?"
She asked him, "What does it mean?"
"Some crazy Texan." He resumed drilling. (p.293)
The dentist had a party planned for the couples that very night, and he decides to hold it anyway: "This fucks up our party, doesn't it...But I've bought all the booze"(p.294). The book's popularity may have been influenced by social movements of the decade, but definitely not specific political events.
In the year following COUPLES' success, five of the top ten best sellers were "erotic novels"(THE LOVE MACHINE, THE INHERITORS, THE SEVEN MINUTES, NAKED CAME THE STRANGER, and THE PRETENDERS). This may show that a year earlier than others Updike fulfilled a want of the common readership. Gore Vidal's MYRA BRECKINRIDGE was the other novel of 1968 which revolved around sex, and it is telling that the very next year five erotic novels appeared. Updike's tapping into the readership's desire was most likely not a marketing move on his part, but nonetheless it is a pointer as to why this book was so much more popular that his other works of literary fiction. One of these 1969 best sellers, NAKED CAME THE STRANGER, was authored by a group of journalists wanting to parody the "sex-in-suburbia story"(80 yrs. of Best Sellers). It was not a direct parody of Updike's novel, but Updike's novel is indeed about sex-in-suburbia. This attempted parody, however, successfully failed: Readers took NAKED CAME THE STRANGER seriously and it sold 98,000 copies. This is not to imply that Updike wrote a sex-saturated novel to pander to readers (as four of the 1969 best sellers apparently did), but that his subject matter coincided with a social climate that was ready to accept explicit sexual writing outside of pornographic magazines. The one non-scholarly review of COUPLES subsequent to five years after its publication is very telling. Although this review very inaccurately renders what the novel is about, it may reveal what accounts for the book's popularity. Bill Ott recommends COUPLES as "serious and steamy", and then attempts to encapsulize its content: "We tend to remember this ground breaking Updike novel only for its explicit sex scenes and its biting portrayal of icy suburban adultery, but we should remember also that amid the meaningless sexual proddings there is a touching and very erotic love story-- genuine emotion and sexual liberation blooming in a wasteland of split-level sensation seekers." This is a gross misstatement of the work, for it is by no means a love story, nor is it a celebration of sexual liberation. These references to "sexual liberation" and "split-level sensation seekers", however, may explain the popularity of COUPLES. Even though COUPLES is not a call to the country to liberate itself from over- strict sexual mores, it can be assumed that if our country's sexual mores had not been loosened during the Sixties Updike's book would have been considered unacceptable by far more people than it was.
Voyeurism is a magnet that will always attract people, and John Updike's novel could be called a "Re-invention of Voyeurism." More than one review compared COUPLES to the gossipy PEYTON PLACE, which possessed a lighter element of voyeurism than COUPLES. The first sentence of Updike's novel is a piece of dialog; words spoken by the central character as he undresses with his wife. This is a proper beginning for a story told from within. The perspective taken up allows the reader to look through a bedroom wall, and this point of view (similar to a hidden bedroom camera) is present in a great many of the 458 pages. Where many best sellers are told more externally, COUPLES is true to "higher literary standards" in that it is told from the interior. The way that this meshes with a popular readership may be the titillating information that is being conveyed (e.g., "He scorned any sign of fear from her. He taught her to blow. His prick enormous in her mouth, she felt her love of him as a billowing and gentle tearing of veins inside her") p.40. Another aspect that adds to the voyeuristic element is the presentation of correspondence. Reading other people's mail is a federal crime, and when reading various letters out of the pages of COUPLES the reader may have his or her sense of being an eavesdropper and spy increased. The character Foxy writes to Piet that their "sweet sin [adultery] is strangely mixed with the sweetness of pregnancy-- perhaps Ken waited too long to make me pregnant and now that it is here I have turned toward someone else with the gratitude"(p.262). Such letters from Foxy to Piet appears in the text several times. These letters are italicized to signify what they are, but are always entirely realistic. Much of the information is not essential to the story line, which lends to their complete believability. In one letter Foxy includes five riddles, which necessitates her lover and the reader to turn the letter and book upside down respectively to see the answers. In some ways this device (of necessitating the reader to turn the book upside down) is contrived, but it does make the reader, in this one instance, physically interactive with the book as well as imaginatively. Above all, however, is the extreme intimacy with which this book is written. Nothing is withheld, and privacy is in radical negation.
Within this sex-driven novel is John Updike's paradoxical development of characters. All characters are portrayed with abundant and relentless detail, and the novel is exceptionally realistic for a book on the best seller list. At the same time, however, Updike's characters are not entirely unique. They are not caricatures or cartoonish characters, but perhaps "stock characters." This is one of the places where Updike warrants the critics' word of "brilliance" to describe his technical skill. Somehow, despite the fact that these characters are very individualized, they possess a transcendence. This is to say that they are universally American; they are real people but could be anybody, especially the reader. A New York Times Book Review best explicates this concept. Updike is dubbed a "fictional biochemist" and the flatness of his secondary characters is excused as a necessary component of creating his "Impersonal Tragedy." Both these two- word terms can be very illuminating. "Fictional biochemist" credits Updike with his microscopic vision. But, like the scientist, his limited study is indicative of Life itself. The term "Impersonal Tragedy" shows how Updike's work of COUPLES is not in the Aristotelian mode of tragedy. Aristotle conceived of tragedy as arising from individual circumstances, whereas the problems faced by the couples of Updike's novel are less particular. The Greek tragedy of Oedipus may seem distant because most people will not really worry about facing the bizarre chain of coincidence that leads to Oedipus's downfall. In other words, only in a Freudian sense could anybody really fear that they will unknowingly sleep with their mother and have their eyes gouged out (realistically it is not going to happen). Updike's rendering of tragedy, however, is of a common and everyday nature. COUPLES could be fruitfully compared to Shakespeare's "problem plays" or "tragicomedies", in that both Updike and the Bard deal with the conundrum of human sexuality in relation to society's conception of religion. The New York Time's Book Review states that Updike is an important definer of the individual's relation to the collective. Not only does Updike work with the relation of the individual to the collective, but the individual characters often step out of themselves and represent the American collective. Piet speaks of America having fallen out of God's favor and thinks to himself that, "As Americans they had enjoyed their nation's luxurious ride and now they shared the privilege of going down with her"(p.224). Piet, and the other characters, manage to represent more than themselves.
Updike's theological concerns were acknowledged by the critics. It should be mentioned how this may have contributed to its large number of readers. Many people may have read it out of true religious inquisitiveness, but it is highly possible that others, maybe not even consciously, allowed themselves to read 450 pages of sex because they read on the Updike-created dust jacket (and maybe even learned from a review) that the book carried religious importance. An example in contemporary media which may help to understand this phenomenon is the 1997 movie THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE. This movie ostensibly presented an Augustinian take on human sexuality: reject the flesh. Interestingly, however, were all the full nude shots of women in the movie. The movie was rated "R", but the nudity surpassed the amount commonly allowed in any non-adult film. The movie-raters and reviewers obviously forgave the film because it was showing the nude shots under the auspice that: this is wrong, this is what you should not do. This viewer, however, came away thinking that this was an intentionally used set-up and that someone in Hollywood had a huge laugh. It may have been through an ultra-hypocritical idea bordering on genius that THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE was simultaneously one of the most visually gratuitous movies ever to not be labeled pornography and the most highly moralistic and anti-sex movies of the Nineties. This all relates to COUPLES because the reader simultaneously gets porn and hard core religion. The lowest and highest senses are satisfied. Unlike what is suspected of THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, however, COUPLES probably was not schemed. It perhaps was merely a fortunate result of Updike's subject matter that COUPLES fluked its way into a condition to be massly read and also reviewed in serious religious magazines. Many of the reviewers deal with this dichotomy and are indeed confused by it (see the review section for a full delineation of this confusion and debate). Much argument has been given, but most of this is in the context of COUPLES as a piece of literature rather than a best seller. In short, if there is a consensus on this matter, it is that Updike's book is about ten New England couples who "have substituted sex for God." Renascence, a Catholic magazine, states that Updike, "By emphasizing the underlying Easter ritual of returning to Life through Christ, presents the ironic contrast of returning to Death through Self." As for the popular take on the book, which is what is being examined here, it is best summarized six years after the initial publication by the review, "Updike's Couples: Squeak in the Night." This review states that after the initial buying binge the book was, "relegated to a place on the shelf between popular romances and monster size "array" novels (Hotel, Airport, Ship of Fools)....The problem with Couples is all that sex. All that sex, however, can be understood as a complex metaphor for man's relation to and examination of death." Updike's intentions can, and have been, demonstrated quite well, but it is important in discussing the book's popular reception keep in mind that it was governed by a fair degree of confusion. It is ascertained that readers were happily or unhappily suffocated with an incredible amount of sex, yet also vaguely aware of a religious symbolism.
Moral ambiguity, then, is an important element which must not have hurt its reception. It is suspected that Mr. Updike thought it more worthy to just present these couples' action than to present their actions with judgment. This is probably out of an intellectual reluctance to feign authority on a matter, as well as an aesthetic concern "to show, not tell." He seems to have carried out this mother-rule of writing literary fiction ("show don't tell") to a great, if not extreme extent; there is no clear direction to speak of in COUPLES. Unplanned by Updike, this may have increased the book's common readership. A portrayal of people living in the midst of "the Sexual Revolution" would immediately be unpopular with half the nation's readership if it were to overtly support or condemn a burgeoning promiscuity. The detached moral message, if there is one, is most implicit. Although this may have confused reviewers, it probably served the purpose of not alienating readers. Throughout the book are the mixed motives of all the characters. It is effective, then, in that nobody can be seen as "good" or "bad." All seems leveled out, and this is once again Updike the "fictional biochemist. Perhaps it is the undertone of a biological view of life that allows the reader to see the unimportance of trying to put moral values on actions. Even Piet, who is the lone church-goer, eventually sees life as necessarily both creative and destructive. His wife, moreover, says to him, "Honestly, I wonder, Piet, if religion's worth it, if it wouldn't be healthier to tell [the children] the truth, we go into the ground and don't know anything and come back as grass." Diana Trilling of Atlantic magazine offers the insight that Updike leaves the reader to provide the "significance" of COUPLES. Although this bothers her, it is perhaps why so many people were inclined to read it.
When a book sells close to 200,000 copies in a single year, it is fact that the book was unusual in some sense. Each book on a best seller list is in a certain sense a phenomenon. Whether intentionally or not, the best selling authors tap into something which separate their books from the rest. In the case of COUPLES a common readership does not seem to have been the writer's priority. Sex sells, but even more than that a bizarre juxtaposition of "high" and "low" is suspected as the catalyst to this novel becoming a best seller. This reference to a juxtaposition of high and low is not meant in the common modern sense of a very intentional juxtaposition of high art and low art. In a great sense, Updike's uncontrived juxtaposition is more original than that: the craft is always high but the subject is always in the gutter. Updike, of course, did not consider his subject to be of the gutter, but literary tradition probably would. COUPLES only sold eight copies last year*, but at least this reader would not be surprised to see it eventually resurface.
Popularity in other media is not relevant; only a books-on-tape exists.*
Copy of Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
80 YEARS OF BEST SELLERS
JOHN UPDIKE, A COMPREHENSIVE BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis.
"Couples by John Updike." American Libraries 22 (Feb 1991): 184.
"Eros and Agape: The Opposition in Updike's Couples." Renascnece 28 (Wint. 1976): 83-93.
Backshceider, Paula and Nick. "Updike's Couples: Squeak in the Night." Modern Fiction Studies 20 (Spring 1974): 45-52.
"John Updike's Uptown Peyton Place." Life 64 (5 Aprl 1968): 8
Trilling, Diana. "Updike's Yankee Traders." Atlantic Books (11 Apr. 1968)
*Alfred A. Knopf Publishers (Phone# 212-572-2503)