Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Updike's Rules for Reviewers

Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Board of Directors, recently posted John Updike's rules for reviewers, drawn from the introduction to his collection Picked Up Pieces. I am a member of NBCC and have written scores of reviews ranging from 190-word Choice snippets to review essays, and over the last few days have been giving Updike's rules a lot of thought.

Updike was as good a reviewer and essayist as he was a novelist, and so with all humility I want to respond to his ideas. I'll highlight his rules and will then respond after each.

"My rules," he writes, "shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:
His drawing from "youthful traumas" is not happenstance. Reviews of my books have been quite good, but in academia everyone has to deal with the dreaded reader's report for both journal article and book submissions, and frankly if you haven't experienced "youthful traumas," or mid-career traumas for that matter, you haven't been submitting things. The double-blind peer review process might seem like the gold standard for objectivity, but most commonly, blind review allows people to be pricks with no repercussions. No one has ever adequately explained to me why reviewers ought to get or need the protection of anonymity. As a result, now that i review both book manuscripts and article submissions I have committed myself to constructive and fair criticism, and have endeavored in particular to avoid the gatekeeper effect whereby I see myself as the gatekeeper to the kingdom of publication. generally speaking, I want things to see the light of day and let the reader (and future reviewers) decide. this is not always possible, but I think it is a pretty sound best practice.

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
Another way to think of this is to review the book the author has written, not the one she did not write. It is amazing how many reviews assess the latter instead of the former. Yes, it is fair to address opportunities miss, arguments ignored, peculiar choices. But take the book on its own terms.

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.
Ahh, the golden age of book reviewing. I think Updike's standard here is likely more apt for fiction in any case, but in his time book reviewers were allotted a great deal more space than most of us get now. Plus, let's face it -- Updike could likely write as much as he wanted. I agree that it is great to quote when appropriate, especially to highlight particularly good (or bad) writing, but extended passages can be tough given a word limit that is likely to weigh in at something under, usually well under, a thousand words.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.
Again, this seems more apt for fiction reviewers. Of course Updike lays out a false dichotomy here inasmuch as a non-fuzzy precis seems appropriate depending on context.

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.)
This one is almost wholly aimed at fiction writers. It is pretty difficult for a reviewer of a book on the Civil War to keep the outcome a secret.

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?
This is great advice. Most nonfiction reviewers will do this as a matter of course, placing the book within a larger literature or situating it within various schools, debates, arguments, or trends. And, yes, when pointing out failures or shortcomings, make sure they are both the writer's and that they are germane.

I am going to break this next paragraph down into its component parts as it contains some of the richest material:

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.
I think this is key. In the historical profession it becomes increasingly difficult to review books of complete strangers. we tend to know one another or to know one anothers' colleagues or advisors or what have you. but it seems clear to me that you don't review books of clear enemies or dear friends. Forget about the ethical aspect of this latter -- if a book reviewer owed his audience honesty first and foremost, is it really worth it to run the risk of losing a friend? And while sticking it to a foe might seem worthwhile, the personal animus is either already known or will become clear. Trust me -- at a certain point your problem will be that you have too many books to review, not too few. Turn down any where conflicts are attendant. (If the Times comes calling, of course, let your conscience be your guide.)

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.
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author "in his place," making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers.
I love how in telling people not to grind axes, Updike grinds a couple of axes. Well played, sir!

Review the book, not the reputation.
You know, I don't entirely agree with this one. Here is why. Sometimes a book explodes and gets far more credit than it deserves and in so doing overwhelms other, worthier books. I don't think one should go after a big name just to get a notch on one's belt, but I also think it is fair to say, this book that's getting a lot of praise? It's not so good and it is muscling out these books that deserve your attention. I stand by this, for example (though how naive was I to think that FML would be published in 2003?).

Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban.
I agree 100% Better to err on the side of kindness and give a book a chance than to condemn. Humility in reviewing is an invaluable trait. And I say this as someone not often accused of excessive humility. But there is lots and lots of very good work out there and there will be long after you've penned your last review.

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.
Reviewing is, to my mind, invaluable and underrated. A reviewer is part of a conversation, neither the first nor the last word. Take criticism seriously as a writer of it, a recipient of it, and a reader of it.

No comments: