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June 20, 2009

Up(Yours!)Dike's Rules for Book Reviewing (And Why They Suck!)

John Updike's Golden Rules for Book Reviewing, via (you'll have to catch this link quickly, since it forwards after a few seconds):

  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?
  6. 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."

Okay, let's just be clear here: these are "golden rules" insofar as they are John Updike wishing reviewers would do unto him as he would have them do unto him. I know he wrote reviews himself, but he was primarily a fiction writer and had no benefit coming to him for developing a reputation as a strong and honest reviewer. Rather, the opposite: he had a stake in not pissing anyone in the industry off and in building goodwill among writers, publishers, and other folks with cookies.

I'm a writer as well, though a barely published one (no book yet, so no nasty reviews yet, so grain-o-salt it.) I also write reviews for my blogs and for more ... er ... legitimate venues. And I, openly, thoughtfully, and advisedly don't follow Updike's rules (with a few exceptions), even though I know it could hurt me as a writer in the long run. Here's why, point for point:

  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

    Really? So if we've seen -- in the past decade -- twenty, or fifty, or two hundred debut novels by white, male writers in their late twenties about rediscovering their and their family's place in the universe by backpacking around ________ (fill in foreign locale here), we don't get to blame the 201st writer for not attempting anything different? That's bullshit. Book reviews are part of a larger conversation analyzing our culture by examining artistic and artificial products of that culture. The writer's choice of subject is absolutely fair game. If we're bored by a book not because it's horribly written but because it's the five-thousandth iteration of that particular subject -- stale, clich├ęd, and unoriginal -- the reader needs to know ... and we need to say so.

    Or to get more granular: if a writer chooses something hot-button and difficult as a subject and displays her huge blind spot in doing so, do we not get to point that out? Say she's writing about prejudice against the disabled in a city like, say, Oakland (to get really blatant) but there are no characters of color anywhere in her narrative. In Oakland. It's bullshit to say "she didn't want to address race so she left the POC out." You can't address anything in a mimetic scenario that in real life would include X, if you don't include X. And reviewers get to call writers on this.

    Maybe I'm laying too much weight on reviewing, but I consider it part of cultural criticism, which I consider to be something of a sacred trust (or a profane trust?) I consider cultural production itself a sacred trust: people talking to other people about what they think is important; telling stories about what it is in our society we should be paying attention to. If they leave stuff out, ignore stuff, or choose not to address stuff, they get to be called out for it
    , one hundred percent, you betcha.

  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.

    Ar to the Gh. Seriously? This explains a lot about Updike and about how MFA lit fic is written. It's written so that it can be quoted, sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph, in reviews! Think about it, folks. What's the point of writing (or reading) a 80,000-word work of prose if you can get an adequate "taste" of it in 50 words? Doesn't that basically tell you that the 80,000 words are written in (bo-ring) equal, like increments of 50-100 words? Why would anyone wanna read that?

    A book is long-form prose. It should not be quotable, that is: it should not be tastable via quotation. It should be so integral and complete a piece that you have to read the whole fucking thing to get a real "impression" of it. This is not to say that enjoyment -- "mouth feel" -- of the language is unimportant. It is, however, to say that insisting that a quotation be included will disadvantage books that were written as wholes, and not as excessively long and plodding and plotless prose-poems by people whose prose poetry would never be accepted as such by the poetry industrial complex. And, in my not-humble opinion, all books (excepting collections) should be written primarily as wholes, with the lovely language taking second priority to the integrity of the piece. (Unless, of course, the writer specifically chooses a project that deconstructs novel or book structure and focuses in on the moment of language, in which case the writer should be prepared to be called out for it.)

  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

    Again, this means that you can only describe the language of the book, and not character, structure, plot point, theme, setting, action, thought, or that indescribable something that animates (or fails to animate) the whole and makes it a living piece of art. The only things that are quotable in a review are small increments of language. You can't quote a plot, or confirm a plot by quotation. You can't quote a character, or confirm a book-length characterization by quoting a phrase. And, let's be clear: a characterization that can be confirmed by quoting a phrase? My people call it "stereotype."

    And "fuzzy precis?" Eat me, Updike. The typical review is 500 - 1000 words. You can't give anything but a general summary of a novel or book in that space. You just can't. The succinct precis is the reviewer's most basic tool, you tool. In fact, I would even say that the "art" of the review is being able to convey a sense of the book without having to hack up the book into pieces to do so. Casting contempt upon this "art" by referring to it as a "fuzzy precis" doesn't do anything. Reviewers won't, and can't, stop using it, and whole books will become no more quotable thereby. Asshole.

  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.)

    I mostly agree with this, but want to point out that Updike gives only the example of his own books being spoilered, and not having his experience of reading another's book spoiled thereby. That's pretty revealing.

  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?

    No and no! Comparisons are odious! This is the one, specific place where what Updike said above -- about not calling out a writer for failing to do what he didn't attempt -- applies. My rule number one: DO NOT COMPARE INDIVIDUAL WRITERS AND DO NOT CALL OUT A WRITER FOR FAILING TO ACHIEVE WHAT ANOTHER WRITER ACHIEVED. This is the best way to encourage people to imitate one another: by implying that there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way to do something. Saying "this writer's way of addressing the subject is correct, yours is incorrect" only sets up an orthodoxy. Writers should rather be critiqued purely on the successes and failures of their own projects, and not on how their projects compare to those of others. If someone tries something and fails, yes, say so. But with an eye towards how THAT SPECIFIC ATTEMPT could have been more successful, rather than with an eye toward how that specific attempt is wrong, but hey, look at this one!

    The only thing I agree with is this: "
    Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?" That goes double for me.

  6. 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."

    Yeah, yeah, fine. I can't really disagree with any of this. But I have to say, if a book fails to relay the "joys in reading," that needs to be said. Readers must become more discriminating through reading reviews. Readers must learn over time what makes a book ordinary, and what makes it challenging or interesting. They must be given a vocabulary they can use to talk about books. They must understand that some joys of reading, the ones they are always seeking, are not the only joys. They must learn that simply because a small joy may be discerned in a book, it doesn't mean that the book is worth reading. And they must ultimately learn that every mediocre book that is published, reviewed, bought, and read, means very specifically that another, much better book will not be published, much less read. Readers must learn how to improve the publishing economy for good writing, and poison the publishing economy for bad writing.

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