The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Updike’s rules for reviewing

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Via Justin Taylor we get some advice from John Updike, who reviewed “nearly every major writer of the 20th century and some 19th-century authors,” and gave some guidance on book reviews in the foreword to his 1975 collection of essays, 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.

Here are a number of excellent and thought-provoking suggestions, some presuming a longer, critical review, probably of fiction, but some assumptions that, I believe, the Christian reviewer should not and – with integrity – cannot embrace. Perhaps chief among them is this: “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.” While there are certainly elements of truth in that, there is also a sense that that is precisely what a Christian is, especially if he is given opportunity (or takes it) for public reviews. The Christian reviewer is – or should be – a caretaker of God’s tradition, an enforcer of the orthodox standard, and a warrior in an ideological (don’t you love that Updike throws in the variant spelling?) battle. If Updike was suggesting that he was not striking blows in an ideological battle, then I would have to disagree with him. Everyone is, whether willing to admit it or not.

I can think of other of these suggestions that I might wish to nuance (and several to vigorously enforce) and should be interested to know the thoughts of others.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 2 September 2011 at 08:57

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