Updike, John: Couples
(researched by Dan Kennedy)

Assignment 1: Bibliographical Description
1 First edition publication information (publisher, place, date, etc.)
COUPLES by John Updike A Borzoi Book, published in April 1968 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. in New York ($6.95) Copyright 1968 by John Updike. All rights reserved under International and Pan American Copyright Conventions. Distributed by Random House, Inc. Published simultaneousl
y in Toronto, Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.
Source: Copy of the Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
2 First edition published in cloth, paper, or both? If both, simultaneous or staggered?
Published in cloth by Alfred A. Knopf. A copy of the first edition which was simultaneously published in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada Limited has not yet been found (to confirm that this f
irst edition was also cloth).
Source: Copy of the Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
3 JPEG image of cover art from first edition, if available
4 Pagination
241 leaves, unnumbered [pp.4-458]
5 Edited or Introduced? If so, by whom?
Alfred A. Knopf edition not edited or introduced. Unlikely that the simultaneous first edition published in Toronto, Canada, by Random Hous
e of Canada Limited was edited or introduced. As this point in research, however, this assumption remains only an assumption.
Source: Copy of Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
6 Illustrated? If so, by whom?
Alfred A. Knopf first edition not illustrated. Simultaneous first edition published in Toronto, Canada, by Random House of Canada Limited is presumably not illustrated as well.
Source: Copy of the Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
7 JPEG image of sample illustration, if available
8 General physical appearance of book (Is the physical presentation of the text attractive? Is the typography readable? Is the book well printed?)
Physical presentation of text is very attractive and readable. *The text of this book was set on the Linotype in Janson, a recutting made direct from type cast from matrices long thought to have been made by the Dutchman Anton Janson, who was a practicing type founder in Leipzig during the years 1668-1667. Howe
ver, it has been conclusivley demonstrated that these types are actually the work of Nicholas Kis (1650-1702), a Hungarian, who most probably learned his trade from the master Dutch type founder Kirk Voskens. The type is an excellent example of the influ
ential and sturdy Dutch types that prevailed in England up to the time William Caslon developed his own incomparable designs from these Dutch faces.*
Source: Afternote included in copy of the Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
9 JPEG image of sample chapter page, if available
10 Paper (Assess the original quality of the paper used for the book. Is the paper in the copy or copies you examined holding up physically over time?)
Paper: Of good quality; not thin. Durable and has held up well over time.
Source: Copy of Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
11 Description of binding(s)
The book was composed, printed, and BOUND by Kingsport press, Inc., Kingsport, Tennessee. Copies of the first edition in regular library circulation have been re-binded.
12 Transcription of title page
13 JPEG image of title page, if available
14 Manuscript Holdings
"Upd
ike 'flatly denies' That Tarbox is Ipswich." Letter. The Ipswich Chronicle. 25 April 1968. (Rpt. in The John Updike Newsletter No. 2 [Spring 1977]: 3.) *Relevance is that "Tarbox" is the setting for COUPLES.*
A note about COUPLES in DICTIONARY OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY: DOCUMENTARY SERIES. Vol. 3. Ed. Mary Brucolli. Detroit: Gale, 1983.
Source: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 Compiled by Jack De Bellis Foreword by John Updike Copyright 1994 Greenwood Press Westport, Connecticut London
15 Other (typograpical information from title page, etc.)
Jacket design by Jean Yee Wong [Updike conferred with, however.] William Blake's water-color drawing "Adam and Eve Sleeping" and details from it are reproduced on the jacket by courtesy of the Museum of Fin
e Arts, Boston.
Source: Copy of Alfred A. Knopf first edition.
Assignment 2: Publication and Performance History
1 Did the original publisher issue the book in more than one edition? If so, briefly describe distinguishing features of each (illustrations, cover art, typography, etc.); if not, enter N/A
Published simultaneously (1968) in Toronto, Canada, by Random house of Canada Limited (Random House and Alfred A. Knopf publishers are affiliated). Source: 1st edition dustjacket.
Still being publised in cloth by Alfred A. Knopf. Source: Alfred A. Knopf publishers (Phone# 212-572-2503).
2 JPEG image of cover art from one subsequent edition, if available
3 JPEG image of sample illustration from one subsequent edition, if available
4 How many printings or impressions of the first edition?
Not exactly an impression (illegal): COUPLES. Taipei: Chen I Shu Yuan, 1968 (Taiwanese piracy with Chinese text on verso of title page and on last page.)
Source: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis.
5 Editions from other publishers? If so, list their dates and publishers; if not, enter N/A
COUPLES. London: The Book Society, 1968 COUPLES. London: Deutsch, 1968 COUPLES. Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1968 COUPLES. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1970 COUPLES. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1981 COUPLES. N.Y.: Ballantine, 1982 COUPLES. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett, 1996
Sources: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis
Alfred A. Knopf publishers (phone# 212-572-2503)
6 Last date in print?
The novel is still in print (in cloth). However, it is only selling in vey small numbers now (i.e. eight copies sold in 1997).
Source: Alfred A. Knopf publisher (212-572-2503)
7 Total copies sold? (source and date of information?)
158,407 in cloth (Alfred A.Knopf). Approximately 4,240,000 in the mass marketing endeavor (paper back).
Source: Alfred A. Knopf publisher (212-572-2503)
8 Sales figures by year? (source and date of information?)
Not all figures yet obtained. 1968 (publication year): 3,330,858 (combined) 180,858 in cloth by Alfred A. Knopf >3,000,000 paperbound by Fawcett Crest (#2 fiction seller of 1968)
Source: 80 years of Bestsellers
9 Advertising copy (transcribe significant excerpts, briefly identify where ads were placed)
Not yet found...
10 JPEG image of sample advertisement, if available
11 Other promotion
Probably not. The source cited below is fairly comprehensive; any television appearance, interview, or other form of self-promotion would have been found. However, soemthing that could be considered a promotion is the publishing of an excerpt of the novel in Family Circle magazine the same year the novel was publshed.
Source: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis.
12 Performances in other media? If so, list media, date, title, production information; if not, enter N/A
"Couples." Books on tape. #1353
Source: http://www.users.fast.net/~joyerkes/Item7.html and JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis.
13 Translations? If translated, give standard bibliographic information for each translation. If none, enter N/A
At least twenty translations (twenty listed here).
Czechoslovakian: Dvojicice. Trans. Dusan Slobodnik. Bratislava: Vydavatelso Slovensky Spisovatel, 1991 Danish: Hver ta'r sin. Trans. Knud Sogard. Kovenhavn: Gylendalis Bogklub, 1969 Dutch: Paren. Amsterdam: Meulenhoff, 1969 Finnish: Parit. Trans. Heimo Pihlajama. Helsinki: Otava (1-2ed.), 1969 French: Couples. Trans. Ann-Marie Soulac. Paris: Gallimard, 1969 German: Ehepaare. Translator not given. Gutersloh: Bertelsmann, 1968 German: Ehepaare Trans. Maria carlsson. Hamburg: Rowohlt (4. Aufl), 1969, 1970. Berlin: Dt. Buch- Gemeinschaft; Gutersloh: Betelsmann; Stuttgart: Europ. Buch-u-Phonoklub, 1971. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt, 1969, 1983 Greek: Ta Zeugaria: Mythistorema. Trans. Maro Loizu. [Greece]: Maiandros Hungarian: Parok. Trans. Julia Debreczeni. [Budapest]: Victoria, 1990 Italian: Coppie. Trans. Attilo Veraldi. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1969,1971. Japanese: Kappuruzu Miyamoto Yokichi Yaku. Translator not given. Tokyo: Schinchosa, 1970, 1975, 1978. Norweigian: Par. Trans. Helge Simonsen. Oslo: Gyldendal, 1969. Portugese: Casais Trocados. Trans. Pinheiro de lemos. Rio de Janeiro. Distr. Record, 1969 Portugese: Casais Trocados. Translator not given. Sao Paulo: Circulo do Libro, 1973 Portugese: Casais Trocados. Trans. Pinheiro de Lemos. Sao Paulo: Abril Cultural, 1982 Serbocroatian: Parovi. Translator not given. Belgrad: Prosveta, 1968, 1979 Slavic: Parovi. Translator not given. Belgrad: Prosveta, 1977. Slovenian: Zakonski Pari. Trans. Mira Miheliceva. Ljubjana: Cankarjeva Zalozba, 1971. Spanish: Parejas. Translator not given. Madrid: Jucar, 1974, 1976, 1977. Swedish: Par om Par. Trans. Else Lundgren. Stockhollm: Bonnier, 1969
Source: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis.
14 Serialization? If serialized, give standard bibliographic information for serial publication. If none, enter N/A
Not serialized, but an excerpt appeared in Family Circle magazine the same year as the original publishing. This is the only appearance that COUPLES made in a periodical.
Sources: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis. Bibliographies in Contemporary American Fiction, JOHN UPDIKE, edited by Professor B.A. Sokoloff.
15 Sequels/Prequels? Give standard bibliographic information for each. If none, enter N/A
There are no novels which are sequels or prequels to this novel (COUPLES). There was, however, a short story written by Updike entitled "Couples"(1976). Since this was a very limited edition there were only 276 copies. For that reason it may be difficult to locate a copy. Some characters from the novel may reappear in this short story, but presently there is no way of knowing. At any rate, even if it was a "sequel", 1)it was short 2) its readership maxed out at the number of 276.
Source: JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 complied by Jack De Bellis.
Assignment 3: Biographical Sketch of the Author
1 Paste your biographical sketch here (maximum 500 words)
On March 18 of 1932 John Hoyer Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania. He was the only son and child of Linda Grace (Hoyer) Updike and Wesley Russell Updike. Residing with this family of three were the g
randparents of young Updike; John and Katherine Hoyer (Linda's parents). For the entirety of his pre-college education, John Updike attended the Shillington, Pennsylvania public schools. Much of the geography of his early fiction, brought together in the "Olinger Stories", is based on this town. John's father was a ma
th teacher in the Shillington junior high and in 1950 John graduated from the Shillington High School as class president and co-valedictorian. In the Fall of that year he went to Harvard, pursuing there his dream to be a graphic artist. Updike was pri
marily interested in becoming a cartoonist. He drew, wrote, and eventually became editor of the Harvard Lampoon. In his junior year he married Mary E. Pennington, an art major from Radcliffe. In his senior year at Harvard the 22 year old Updike wrote an essay of length on Robert Herrick, and sold his first short story, "Friends from Philadelphia", to the New Yorker. The
New Yorker soon became one of the most important literary affiliations of John Updike's career. Editor E.B. White spoke highly of him and, within a year, Updike gave up drawing and became a staff member. For many years after, his fiction and poetry app
eared in the magazine. After two years of being a staff member of the New Yorker, Updike left Manhattan and the magazine in order to concentrate on his writing. With his wife Mary and two young children he moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts. Massachusetts became his perman
ent state of residence. More importantly, perhaps, Ipswich would serve as the fictional "Tarbox" of his 1968 novel about religion and extra-marital suburban sex (COUPLES). In 1958, Harper's publication of his collection of poetry, THE CARPENTERED HEN A
ND OTHER TAME CREATURES, marked Updike's first book. Updike, however, quickly switched from Harper to Knopf when he was requested to change the ending of his upcoming first novel, THE POORHOUSE FAIR. He has published through Knopf since his break with
Harper. In the next two years, two more children were born. In the years following Updike became a prolific writer of both short stories and novels. He eventually moved away from poetry and gained much critical acclaim for his literary fiction. In 1974 Updike separated from his wife Mary. Two years later they successfully filed for a no-fault divorce, and Updike moved to Georgetown, Massachusetts to live with Martha Bernard and her three sons. Today, at the age of 66, John Updike is alive and writing in Beverly, Massachusetts. He is married to Martha Bernard. Among Updike's many awards are Guggenheim Fellow (1959), Rosenthal Award, National Institute of Arts and Letters (1959), Nation
al Book Award in Fiction (1964), and the O. Henry prize. His series of novels featuring the character "Rabbit" are arguably his most distinguished. Other major works are THE SAME DOOR, PIGEON FEATHERS, OF THE FARM, THE CENTAUR, TELEPHONE POLES, MID POIN
T, BECH, A MONTH OF SUNDAYS, THE MUSIC SCHOOL, and THE AFTERLIFE. His papers are being held at Harvard libraries, Amherst College Library, the archives of The New Yorker, and elsewhere. For a full listing refer to the third source listed below.
SOURCES: http://www.users.fast.net/~joyerkes Dictionary of Literary Biography Volume Two (AMERICAN NOVELISTS SINCE WWII) JOHN UPDIKE A BIBLIOGRAPHY, 1967-1993 compiled by Jack De Bellis
Assignment 4: Reception History
1 Paste contemporary reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
The reviews of John Updike's 1968 bestselling novel, COUPLES, revolve around the question of whether the book's description of sex serves a purpose higher than mere pornography. The reviews are particularly interesting because critical opinion had yet to outright confirm Updike as a respected writer of "literary fiction." Many of the critics already held his work in high respect, but at this point in time others were evidently still holding his work (and its frequent subject of sex) in balance. More than one review compares COUPLES to PEYTON PLACE, yet PEYTON PLACE is without argument far less graphic than COUPLES. Life magazine's review ("John Updike's Uptown Peyton Place") claimed that sex rarely is served up with, "more literary flourish." This mostly negative review is more of an aberration than the norm. The review's final analysis of the book as "hollow", moreover, points to where other reviews find substantial merit in the writing. The "hollowness" was accepted by most others as a theological statement, and even the Life review acknowledges that something other than the entertainment of readers is taking place; "As treated by Updike, sex glows with a faint sweat of scholarship." Most all the reviews of this book mixed praise and criticism. Not only was COUPLES considered controversial in content, but ambiguous. Few reviewers kept one thread in their analysis; many seemed to be going in one direction before departing from their introductory take on the novel with runaway comments. The Library Journal's reviewer first states that, "readers will gag with disgust at the excruciatingly detailed varieties of sexual play that Mr. Updike describes", yet later it argues that, "a phenomenal fear of the Christian God pervades the attitudes of all the characters." The Booklist review speaks of Updike's deftness with words and perhaps accurately nutshells what the book is about: "10 couples in a New England town who have substitued sex for God." In the same breath, however, this review alludes to the book's, "vague symbolism" and "shadowy characters." The Atlantic review is also mingled: It treats the book seriously, as a moral novel and a depiction of the death of God on one hand, while on the other deriding its content with references to the "compulsive bed-hopping" of the characters. It does, however, point to the source of the bifurcation. Updike, it sensibly claims, leaves the reader to supply the "significance." Disturbing, however, is this review's unquestioned notion that a depiction of moral ambiguity constitutes "a failure." The New York Times Book Review states that Updike took Norman Mailer's public advise to, "keep his foot in the whorehouse and forget about his damn prose style." This review admits a "startling result to the taking of this advice", however. Updike is dubbed a "fictional biochemist" and an important definer of the individual's relation to the collective. The flatness of the secondary characters is excused as a necessity in creating this "impersonal tragedy" and "painful history of man." Even in a trifling Saturday Review piece, a mixed reaction is evidenced. This reviewer, Granville Hicks, claims that Updike writes "like an angel", yet muses on the "variety of sexual behavior" portrayed. The Nation's review, "Coupling and Uncoupling", pretends a personal knowledge and assumes patronage of Updike, yet like the others it too both praises and criticizes. The reviews hesitate to embrace COUPLES as an important piece of literature, yet none really question it being a serious work. The book's moral ambiguity seems to be the issue. The reviewers, perhaps, might have done better to examine the intentionality and effect of this moral ambiguity in determining whether it detracted from the writing's "significance." [SOURCES] JOHN UPDIKE, A BIBLIOGRAPHY compiled by Jack DeBellis has an extensive list of reviews. Used here: 1) "John Updike's Uptown Peyton Place." Life 64 (5 Apr. 1968): 8 2) Cayton, Robert F. "Updike, John. Couples." Library Journal 93 (15 March 1968): 1164 3) "Couples" Booklist 64 (1 June 1968):112 4) Trilling, Diana. "Updike's Yankee Traders." Atlantic 221 (Apr. 1968): 129-131 5) Sheed, Wilfrid. "Play in Tarbox." The New York Times Review of Books (11 Apr. 1968): 3 6) Hicks, Granville. "God is gone, Sex is left." Saturday Review 51 (6 Apr. 1968): 21-22 7) Yglesias, Jose. "Coupling and Uncoupling." Nation 206 (13 May 1968): 637-638 There are no parodies, caricatures, or other media reviews of this particular Updike book.
2 Paste subsequent reception history in here (maximum 500 words)
The reviews of John Updike's 1968 bestselling novel, COUPLES, revolve around the question of whether the book's description of sex serves a purpose higher than mere pornography. The reviews are particularly interesting because critical opinion had yet to outright confirm Updike as a respected writer of "literary fiction." Many of the critics already held his work in high respect, but at this point in time others were evidently still holding his work (and its frequent subject of sex) in balance. More than one review compares COUPLES to PEYTON PLACE, yet PEYTON PLACE is without argument far less graphic than COUPLES. Life magazine's review ("John Updike's Uptown Peyton Place") claimed that sex rarely is served up with, "more literary flourish." This mostly negative review is more of an aberration than the norm. The review's final analysis of the book as "hollow", moreover, points to where other reviews find substantial merit in the writing. The "hollowness" was accepted by most others as a theological statement, and even the Life review acknowledges that something other than the entertainment of readers is taking place; "As treated by Updike, sex glows with a faint sweat of scholarship." Most all the reviews of this book mixed praise and criticism. Not only was COUPLES considered controversial in content, but ambiguous. Few reviewers kept one thread in their analysis; many seemed to be going in one direction before departing from their introductory take on the novel with runaway comments. The Library Journal's reviewer first states that, "readers will gag with disgust at the excruciatingly detailed varieties of sexual play that Mr. Updike describes", yet later it argues that, "a phenomenal fear of the Christian God pervades the attitudes of all the characters." The Booklist review speaks of Updike's deftness with words and perhaps accurately nutshells what the book is about: "10 couples in a New England town who have substitued sex for God." In the same breath, however, this review alludes to the book's, "vague symbolism" and "shadowy characters." The Atlantic review is also mingled: It treats the book seriously, as a moral novel and a depiction of the death of God on one hand, while on the other deriding its content with references to the "compulsive bed-hopping" of the characters. It does, however, point to the source of the bifurcation. Updike, it sensibly claims, leaves the reader to supply the "significance." Disturbing, however, is this review's unquestioned notion that a depiction of moral ambiguity constitutes "a failure." The New York Times Book Review states that Updike took Norman Mailer's public advise to, "keep his foot in the whorehouse and forget about his damn prose style." This review admits a "startling result to the taking of this advice", however. Updike is dubbed a "fictional biochemist" and an important definer of the individual's relation to the collective. The flatness of the secondary characters is excused as a necessity in creating this "impersonal tragedy" and "painful history of man." Even in a trifling Saturday Review piece, a mixed reaction is evidenced. This reviewer, Granville Hicks, claims that Updike writes "like an angel", yet muses on the "variety of sexual behavior" portrayed. The Nation's review, "Coupling and Uncoupling", pretends a personal knowledge and assumes patronage of Updike, yet like the others it too both praises and criticizes. The reviews hesitate to embrace COUPLES as an important piece of literature, yet none really question it being a serious work. The book's moral ambiguity seems to be the issue. The reviewers, perhaps, might have done better to examine the intentionality and effect of this moral ambiguity in determining whether it detracted from the writing's "significance." [SOURCES] JOHN UPDIKE, A BIBLIOGRAPHY compiled by Jack DeBellis has an extensive list of reviews. Used here: 1) "John Updike's Uptown Peyton Place." Life 64 (5 Apr. 1968): 8 2) Cayton, Robert F. "Updike, John. Couples." Library Journal 93 (15 March 1968): 1164 3) "Couples" Booklist 64 (1 June 1968):112 4) Trilling, Diana. "Updike's Yankee Traders." Atlantic 221 (Apr. 1968): 129-131 5) Sheed, Wilfrid. "Play in Tarbox." The New York Times Review of Books (11 Apr. 1968): 3 6) Hicks, Granville. "God is gone, Sex is left." Saturday Review 51 (6 Apr. 1968): 21-22 7) Yglesias, Jose. "Coupling and Uncoupling." Nation 206 (13 May 1968): 637-638 There are no parodies, caricatures, or other media reviews of this particular Updike book.
Assignment 5: Critical Analysis
1 Paste your critical analysis in here (maximum 2500 words)
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.* SOURCES: 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)
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