John Updike’s Lit Establishment Rules

When reviewing a book:

Don’t rock the boat. Moreover, don’t even think it can be rocked. Don’t acknowledge there is a boat, nor that you are on it and sailing in any critical direction. Bow to an author’s wishes. Deny out of hand the ignorant, callous, and delusional nature of John Updike’s primary rules for reviewing. Do this well, and you too may be a successful lit establishment reviewer. See the “rules” here: Reviewing 101: John Updike’s rules.

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned President of the National Book Critics Circle, John Freeman describes Updike’s 31 year old “rules” for reviewing as “worth following” and “still the single best guide to fairness today.” For the purpose of trying to get reviews published in corporate newspapers, and other status quo establishment arenas, the rules may be effective. However the rules are far from fair, let alone intellectually open. They are lobotomy inducing, and perhaps induced.

Nevertheless, of the 6 rules, a couple are great in that they point to the need to give readers a direct glimpse of the fiction, without which any review, of fiction especially, is utterly alien to the thing itself, and can hardly be said to be a re-view. Updike’s Rule 2: Provide readers “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.” Rule 3: “Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.”

Rule 5 is also very good: “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?” I would go further, adding that comparing and contrasting to other works beyond the one primarily under review is important, usually vital, for a wide variety of reasons.

Rule 4 is less sound: “Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.” Personally, I could not care less whether or not much of the plot is revealed, since there is far more to any quality book than sheer plot suspense, much of which in any event can be recreated in a reader’s mind despite any revealing. If crucial plot points are vital to a reviewer’s vision of an insightful review – perhaps to discuss a great flaw or strength or a particularly salient topical point – then matters of plot should be discussed openly. It’s not only fair, it’s often necessary.

Likewise it is very fair to discuss an author’s purposes, or “wishes,” the apparent intent of any book. In fact critiquing an author’s apparent purpose in writing is one of the first routes of illumination a review might well take. Otherwise a reviewer must bow in silence to whatever high or low “wishes” authors may have in writing and publishers may have in publishing. If a reviewer sees fit to become more than a lackey to the “wishes” of the various agents of the literary establishment (writers, editors, publishers, and others included), then the reviewer needs to get a conscience and fuller understanding of what it means to have a free intellect. A reviewer had better speak up about it, critically. The alternative is to lay down and be run over by authorial purpose and lack thereof and by the standards and strictures (and lack thereof) of the larger literature establishments.

On the other hand, if a reviewer is a highly defensive novelist, or wishes to be an integral part of said literature establishment, then he may be well remunerated to basically follow Updike’s first rule: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” Understanding what the author wished to do is necessary, of course, but just as enlightening is evaluating (not “blaming for”) the nature, quality, and context of the “wish,” and also evaluating the achievement and lack thereof. Updike would have reviewers close their eyes and zip their lips, where they should be keen of sight and articulate in illuminating the book and its context. Purposes (apparent and otherwise) in writing matter, and books should be re-viewed, evaluated on that basis too.

So much for Updike’s first main point of emphasis in his list, Rule 1. His other main point of emphasis, the last rule (rule six) is still more full of bunk and degenerates to an incoherent ramble into which I’ll intersperse comments for clarity:

“To these concrete five [rules] might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser.”

For a writer who can be utterly precise, it’s telling that he describes his final point as admittedly vague and uses an essentially meaningless metaphor – “chemical purity” – as if he were working in a sterile lab with inhuman ingredients, which of course, he’s not, except remotely. Reviewers should not look to formulas but to guidelines – some of which may be found in what Updike inappropriately calls rules, others of which are crucially inappropriate or misguided.

“Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.”

Taken at its best this rule might encourage reviewers not to be prejudiced or biased to the extent possible. Fine as far as it goes. But surely one can review fairly and openly even books one may be predisposed to dislike, as well as worthy books by friends. It would be quite a loss not to have such reviews. In fact, some of the most illuminating reviews have been polemics by friends and opponents.

“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.”

As if Updike is caretaking no tradition in these rules, as if his rules attempt to enforce no “party standards” of corporate lit and other status quo lit, as if he has not here laid out a rule-formed ideology, as if he sees his rules as incorrect and not worth emulating by reviewers and newspapers and journals. To think so is to be self-lobotomizing, callous, careless, ignorant – or all the above.

“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.”

One ought to take into account whatever seems appropriate, surely reputation may sometimes be pertinent for commentary. Of course, the truism, leave any tyrannical impulses out in the cold.

“Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast.”

Submit? I think not. Try to detect? Absolutely.

“Better to praise and share than blame and ban.”

This above is a stinking, grotesque false either-or choice more likely, one would think, to be penned by an author’s insipid publicist than by an honest and open intellect. Better to evaluate openly and honestly, encouraging or discouraging as one sees fit, than to blithely praise or blame, let alone 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.”

See above.


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