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John Updike's Rules for Writing Reviews

Farther to my previous post on writing reviews, I bring you John Updike’s guidelines for writing a good review, or what a good book review should contain. I like this, very much. Though it does indirectly remind me that I have a few of Updike’s books (The Witches of Eastwick, Couples and Rabbit, Run) that I haven’t read yet.

____________________________________

From Picked-up Pieces (1975):

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 précis [a summary or abridgement].

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 [complete works] 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.

_____________________________________

Your thoughts?

(Thanks to Steph of Bella’s Bookshelves for the link, and to biblioklept for the original posting!)

4 comments to John Updike’s Rules for Writing Reviews

  • “Review the book, not the reputation.”

    I think this is a very important point that too many reviewers ignore.

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Meghan, Sometimes it’s an easy one to forget, considering how the internet has made it so easy – and sort of fun – to find out about ruckus’ and other controversies. I tried to keep it in mind when reading/reviewing You Deserve Nothing, but it does colour the way you read.

    [Reply]

  • Dee

    Im going to take these rules on. My review earlier this week consciously included several things that I dont always have – author links, quote from book and quoting the blurb.

    Shall also post these rules in my blog on Wednesday and link back to you, if that’s okay?
    These really should be shared 🙂

    [Reply]

    Shannon Reply:

    @Dee, I have to try harder to put quotes in too – my problem is I rarely mark a page when I come across a great bit, so later I forget what it was or where! Sometimes I’ll do little dogears but I hate doing that.

    Share away!

    [Reply]

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