Tuesday, February 06, 2007

John Updike's Rules for Reviewing

I found the rules at Book Critecs Circle, but don't remember how I got there.

Thirty-one years ago, in the introduction to "Picked Up Pieces," his second collection of assorted prose, John Updike laid down his own six rules for reviewing. They are still the single best guide to fairness today:

"My rules," he writes, "shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give him enough direct quotation--at least one extended passage--of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

Without any intention or planning, I've formed the same sort of rules for myself. I don't quote any substantial portion of the text, nor do I know of any online reviewers who do. I'm not sure that my reviews are helpful, but I know that a fellow reviewer has her own table at the local library. So many patrons were coming in based on her reviews that the library decided to capitalize on it and set-up a small display.

What do you like to find in a review -- book or otherwise?

2 comments:

Word Nerd said...

Don't give away the end! That's the worst thing for a review. I like balanced reviews too, where the reviewer takes the time to point out the good and the bad in a book.
And, if the book is good, say things that will get me as a reader excited about picking it up as well.

Kelly Parra said...

I like to know what you like about the book, and even a review that adds a little intrigued. Like, Find out if... haha!