February 23, 2016

Win John Updike’s trash!


Updike in 2008. Image via Wikipedia.

Updike in 2008. Image via Wikipedia.

When last we checked in on Paul Moran, the New Hampshire resident who rode his creepy and relentless Updike-residence trashpicking habit to minor fame, he was in the “apologia” stage of public recognition. It’s not worth revisiting Moran’s methods and justifications for why he did what he did, because that question is now moot, as Moran moves into the inevitable “profit” stage.

Alan Burke at The Salem News reported last week:

Who steals my purse steals trash, according to Shakespeare. But what of the guy who steals your actual trash? Well, he’s hoping to make as much as $30,000.

[…]The items Moran collected have since been boxed and cataloged for sale today by Boston’s RR Auction.

Bidders are invited to join online at 7 p.m., according to the RR website, following an initial bid made before 6 p.m. The documents, some going back more than half a century, are being sold in a single batch. They include thousands of checks, letters, books (some with notes in the margins), Christmas cards, golf score cards, floppy discs, magazines, doodles, drawings and even love letters from someone named “Joan.”

“I think (Joan) was a woman he was having an affair with,” explained RR vice president Robert Livingston, who describes her letters as “pretty explicit.”

Yet another exhausting reminder: everything that is happening here is completely legal. The trash was abandoned property, which means that Updike (and his estate) have no claim to it, and Moran does. The whole enterprise’s aforementioned ickiness remains in effect, but Livingston counters this by echoing Moran’s argument that these items have not just financial but cultural value:

Livingston sees the preservation of Updike’s trash as an opportunity for literary scholars and fans to learn more about a man who was forever on the short list for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He disputes the notion there’s anything sleazy about auctioning off Updike’s trash.

“It’s part of history,” Livingston told The Salem News, adding there is nothing Updike would be embarrassed about. “His family was aware that Moran was putting together this archive.”

Barring Livingston’s speculation as to by what Updike would or would not be embarrassed, his excuse rests on a definition of “history” that deserves some interrogation. Could this trash be the source of some unwritten, renegade biography, an unauthorized secret history of one of America’s greatest writers? Possibly, but this presupposes a lot. Updike’s estate hasn’t been anywhere near as litigious as those of other famous dead white male authors, so it’s doubtful they would present any legal challenge if such a biography was published.

But then there’s the issue of diminishing returns. It’s highly unlikely that Moran’s outsized enthusiasm/fetishism of Updike’s trash can translate from seller to buyer to author to publisher to book sales. If you believe the Bookscan records that show Begley’s book selling barely 10,000 copies in paperback and hardcover combined, the cult of Updike won’t turn out in full force just to groove on garbage.

The claim that Updike’s trash retains some intrinsic value based solely on who produced it cites the core tenet of celebrity worship culture, which justifies the continued existence and production of everything from TMZ to murderabilia. This culture thrives on our collective belief that some bombshell piece of information hides in seemingly innocuous trash, and that lost data represents lost opportunity. Yes, “trash” is a fluid term; and yes, an iconic writer’s legacy is more than the sum of his estate’s officially authorized parts. But here’s my recommendation to whoever wins the collection; do the right thing, and recycle it.




Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.