Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Rules of Reviewing

Presented here is John Updike's rules for reviewing and critiquing fiction.
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 ideological 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.
I'm not sure if I follow all of these perfectly. Obviously, I almost never give examples of the prose. But most of the others I try to follow fairly well. I often put the book into context of the rest of the author's output, and I am ready to admit when it's my fault that I don't get a book.

The first rule is of most interest to me. I think there's nothing more important than trying to understand what the book is trying to do. One should judge the book on the basis of its intent as well as its contents. For example, if a novel attempts to display the banalities of common drudgery, and it's boring, but it's successful in that portrayal, then the novel is a success. But then again, we run into a perennial topic of this blog: Status or Contract? (Click here if you'd like to read a discussion on Barbelith I had about it with other literary-minded people; and click here if you want to read some thoughts I have about Pynchon).

But something related to this first rule is the idea of authorial intent. A lot of critics, and I mean a lot, seem to think that authorial intent is completely irrelevant to the proper interpretation and criticism of a text. Now, I'm not terribly knowledgeable about this, but these anti-intent critics tend to rationalize parts of a text through other methods, such as the author's subconscious leaking through. These are all interesting and potentially valid points, but to me, authorial intent is probably the second most important part of criticism, with context (historical and textual) being number one (someone could easily argue that context envelopes authorial intent as well). 

It seems to me that Updike is asking the reviewer to understand the intent of the author and of, by proxy, the novel in order to properly gauge whether or not the novel is a success. To make a long story short here, I'm essentially using Updike's maxims to further my own opinions regarding literature. 

I may not always follow these rules to the letter, as inflexible rules are meant to be broken, but I follow in spirit the tenets that Updike has provided us with.

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