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Updike's Rules for Reviewing

I’m feeling in a bit of a blog funk lately — I blame the end of the semester and a hangover from NaBloPoMo — and can’t seem to think of anything original to write.  However, yesterday I found a great post at Critical Mass that contained John Updike‘s six rules for reviewing books that I’d like to share.  These rules come from Updike’s introduction to Picked-Up Pieces:

“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.”

What do you think of these rules?  Do they make sense?  How do you implement any of Updike’s rules into your own book reviews?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion December 9, 2008, 11:31 am

    I definitely try to go easy on the plot summary.

  • Rebecca Reid December 9, 2008, 1:18 pm

    I think these are good and interesting, but not always relevant to book blog book reviewers. I think we’re looking, from each other, for different things then direct quotations. I’m looking for general overall impressions, and while I do agree that plot summaries aren’t necessary in most cases, I want to hear from bloggers if they think the author was trying for something and didn’t succeed. Because that affects the overall feel of a read.

  • Kim December 9, 2008, 3:12 pm

    bermudaonion: Yes, spoilers are a huge thing to avoid in book blog reviews.

    Rebecca: Yeah, I think those are good points. The relationship between book bloggers and their readers and professional reviewers and their readers is different. Even so, I was struck by how many of these things do seem to apply — I love this part at the end: “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.”

  • alirambles December 9, 2008, 7:22 pm

    This is great. I especially like #1 and #5. I know I’ve read plenty of books where I didn’t like it because it wasn’t the book I wanted it to be, rather than that the author didn’t do a good job writing the book he or she wanted to write.

  • Joanne December 9, 2008, 9:34 pm

    These are really good things to keep in mind. Most of the time I try to write my reviews in the same manner that I would use if talking to a friend about a book.
    When I do find something disagreeable about a book I try to explain why I didn’t like it. But I have a terrible time knowing what quotes/passages are relevant for a review so I usually don’t include any, except for ones I especially enjoyed.
    As for the plot, I always include the synopsis from the actual book cover along with my own version of the plot – in most cases I include no spoilers, but if I find a spoiler necessary I include a warning beforehand.

  • Kim December 10, 2008, 8:29 am

    alirambles: Yes, I like those too. I think expecting a book to be something that it isn’t is easy to do when you read a lot of reviews from other book bloggers (or lots of reviews in general). That’s one of the reasons I like just finding books randomly — no expectations.

    Joanne: I’m used to using quotes to do book analysis (I studied English in college), but haven’t quite figured out the best way to use them in reviews. What’s the point of putting in a passage if it doesn’t explain anything about the review?

  • Steph December 10, 2008, 12:18 pm

    got my christmas swap package today from you! 🙂
    it made my day
    thanks so much!!
    merry christmas !

  • Kim L December 10, 2008, 10:12 pm

    Great points. I find that I don’t always have time to write extensive, professional-sounding reviews, so sometimes just to get it out there on the blog, I have to write quick impressions or I’d never get anything done. I really admire those book bloggers, though, who do always follow these guidelines and write amazing reviews that could be professional.

  • Kathleen Peacock December 11, 2008, 8:26 am

    Very interesting. Though not a book reviewer, Roger Ebert immediately sprang to mind because he really does have an excellent grasp of rule one and a horrible grasp of rule four.

    That may be part of the reason I like him (though I don’t dare read a review of his until after I’ve watched a movie)

  • Kim December 11, 2008, 8:35 am

    Kim L: Yeah, me too. Sometimes I feel like I write really good reviews, and sometimes I think mind don’t do the book justice at all. Oh well, that’s why I’m not a professional 🙂

    Kathleen: That’s a great point! Rule #1 is similar to what I was taught when I was a writing tutor — try to empathize with the person you’re working with, try to see what they want to do and then as a tutor try to give them tools to do that. You’re right — Ebert does not go easy on summary!

  • charley December 18, 2008, 11:10 am

    I like those guidelines, though I do not always follow them. I tend not to include lengthy passages in my reviews, but I like his general idea there of providing specific evidence for your opinions.

  • Kim December 19, 2008, 11:51 am

    charley: Yeah, I haven’t usually included passages unless I really think they are illustrative of the author’s style or some point I’m trying to make. But yeah, evidence is important, because my idea of good writing might not mesh with your idea of good writing.

  • Pretty Prats December 23, 2008, 3:08 am

    thanks for this post ! I plan to review all books i read from henceforth .. and this will come handy 🙂