John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing Books

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 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.

29 thoughts on “John Updike’s Rules for Reviewing Books”

  1. See the front page of the Sunday NYT Book Review? Probably broke every rule there. See also, almost any negative review by Michiko Kaukatani.

    Thanks for this.


    1. I think you’re referencing the review of the new McEwan? It seemed pretty underhanded. Kakutani tends to not observe Updike’s sixth rule, namely: “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.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, and Kirn breaks #4 clean off and chews it up and spits it out.

        On they were discussing Kakutani’s horrible review of Martel’s newest. I wonder if any one ever takes her negative reviews seriously? It is also interesting when Kakutani gives a book a terrible review and someone else at NYT finds it a glowing example of contemporary literature.


      2. David Foster Wallace apparently privately stated that he didn’t think Kakutani really read all of Infinite Jest (which she more or less attacked).
        The Millions did a great piece a few months ago called “The Kakutani Two-Step” about her revisionist tendencies.

        Martel’s latest more or less got bad reviews all around, probably deserving. I think people have misunderstood his book (which I didn’t love but was compelled to finish reading in about 48 hrs, which I think is saying something). They’ve approached it as a work of “serious literature” which I don’t believe it is. I think it’s book club fare; but that’s no reason to lambast it. Book club reading is almost its own genre, one with super-permeable borders. I think Kakutani is offended with Martel’s “using” the Holocaust as a prop–although I would argue that he doesn’t do it, b/c his stand-in narrator fails so miserably in his own Holocaust art. I think that Martel recognizes the ambiguity and awfulness of his “Games for Gustave”–it ends with a blank game. It strikes me as purposefully, self-consciously contrived. But I’ve more or less chosen to read it ironically. So.


  2. Some good points with humor and insight. Reviewing is an art and sometimes reviewers don’t realize how critical their comments are, and they just splash paint indiscriminately.


        1. I don’t think you can go wrong with the Rabbit series. Rabbit, Run made a huge impression on me when I was a teenager. I love Updike because his prose is — no surpise — so poetic. He says a lot in few words and has a great eye for imagery.


  3. I think these are pretty good guidelines, the sixth perhaps most important. Two things that get to me most about book reviews (in particular those in national newspapers here in Canada): 1) as Updike says, giving away the plot; 2) (which Updike may disagree with): the reviewer actually having the guts to say whether they think the book is any good or not, and arguing the case. Too many reviews are just a description of the plot with a few non-committal reflections on the writing. Book reviews are of interest when they add to the literary genre somehow, by giving a well-argued critique.


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