A few days ago I noted that while I admired a handful of John Updike’s novels, I much preferred his nonfiction — especially his book reviews. This excerpt from his collection Picked-up Pieces, suggesting ground rules for book reviewers, is a good example of why:
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.
It’s been a long while since I write criticism on a regular basis — a period in which I broke some of these rules, more than once, and often with great gusto — and while I drop opinions on books in this space from time to time, I find that nowadays I’m more inclined to shrug off a bad book rather than waste any more energy on it.
As the craft of book reviewing continues to retreat from the realm of newspapers — after all, why would newspapers want to court the interest of people who read? — and reconstitutes itself in the blog realm, I suspect the “praise and share” philosophy will grow. I reserve the right to stomp on a book that’s wasted my time, but as I did with the Approved Authors series, I’d much rather tell people about the books that enriched my time.