Friday, February 20, 2009

John Updike's Rules on Reviewing Books

Remembering John Hoyer Updike - March 18, 1932 to January 27, 2009

I've been reading a lot of posts about John Updike who died of lung cancer last month. Although I've read a lot of his work there was much I didn't know about the man including the fact that he was born in Pennsylvania and his first novel was THE POORHOUSE FAIR published in 1959.

He's probably best known for his Rabbit novels including RABBIT, RUN and RABBIT REDUX, as well as THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK.

I enjoyed his book reviews in The New Yorker; the first one was published in 1961, so I looked on their site and found an interesting piece I hadn't seen before.

John Updike's Rules on Reviewing Books from PICKED-UP PIECES, 1975.

"My rules, 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 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 précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's oeuvre 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 any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never...try to put the author “in his place,” making of 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 of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end."

Read more at:
The New Yorker