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REVIEWING PROTOCOLS

From Picked-up Pieces by John Updike (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 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.

(as printed here: http://biblioklept.org/2010/04/14/john-updikes-rules-for-reviewing-books/ and elsewhere)

10 thoughts on “*

  1. John Updike, btw, is one of my favourite fiction writers of all time. I first discovered these rules during the early part of July 2011.

  2. STATEMENT

    In connection with reviewing protocol, I feel justified that, earlier this year, I queried a formal book review’s significant crossing of a line of harsh / mocking / misleading tone, and much later that I spoke against a deeper line being crossed in a printed editorial about those queries, and then again that I defended myself against an even deeper line being crossed in a subsequent thread ‘discussion’. I am glad that I pointed out those three lines were crossed in turn.

    And I feel that my integrity has not been compromised in this regard, contrary to what one person has publicly claimed. And it has never been my general habit to query ‘bad’ reviews of my work. But many aspects of the extreme review in question I strongly felt had lost their right to remain unchallenged and, so, I eventually decided, on my blog, simply to dare query the review.

    des lewis
    ===============

    John Updike:
    having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser […] 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.

  3. COROLLARY

    Having let this matter settle for a week or so, I’ve looked back at the publisher’s website thread mentioned above and I see that their statement on 8 July below is still on public showing:
    “For the sake of your literary reputation, vanity, sales and self-esteem you’ve been willing to abandon any professional courtesy, any politeness, any decency, any honour, any integrity. I hope you think it was worth it.”
    Although debate on the book review and on my reaction to it was obviously justified, I now find that quoted statement above as laughable as the Homer Simpson and Ha of Ha jokes the publisher directed at me in various places in the context of that overall debate. I trust others find it so, too.

  4. I cannot know the reason, but the Publisher’s website comment thread (i.e. the 65 comments in total) mentioned in the above Corollary seems to have been deleted today.
    I thank him for the beginning of a healing process, whether or not that was the intention. I hope he and I can eventually be internet friends again.

  5. I was hoping not to need to reopen this thread. But I notice that the 65-comment thread mentioned above has today been re-instated on the Publisher’s website, as have their reviews of Zencore, Best of DF Lewis & Weirdmonger that were also deleted on 4 August.
    The comment-thread that was deleted on 4 August from the Publisher’s website review of Weirdtongue has not yet been re-instated. [Edit (15.8.11): Yesterday, that comment-thread was reinstated on the Publisher’s website. I no longer draw inferences (positive or negative) from the Publisher’s perceived actions, but I continue to trust that – in the long run – we can be internet friends again.]

  6. Just seen this on Facebook as part of a well-known writer’s status today:
    “Make sure you review a book today. Talk them up. Promote, publicize, keep literature alive.”
    I think that should be the watchword wherever possible. And if not posssble, review another book you can do that with. I certainly try to do that with my real-time reviews.
    Has cheered me up today.

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