John Updike’s six rules for reviewing, first published in the introduction to his prose collection Picked Up Pieces in 1975, were reproduced last week at Critical Mass. (Thanks to Matt Bell for the link.)
Given the very interesting discussion of negative reviews that unfolded recently on a couple of my favourite blogs (see this post at Eve’s Alexandria, and this one at Of Books and Bicycles), I thought it worth linking to Updike’s rules here.
On the whole, they strike me as sensible guidelines. I particularly appreciate rule #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.” Though I must confess that I don’t always adhere to this rule when confronted with the tight word limits of print publications. I have found the lack of space constraints to be a definite advantage of reviewing on this blog.
This thought, together with the aforementioned discussion of negative reviews, has me mulling the question of whether the rules are the same whether one is reviewing books on personal blogs or in newspapers and magazines. There are some basic ground rules that are definitely the same for me regardless of venue. The first is to review the work, not the author. The second is to provide support for positive or negative statements about the book, preferably in the form of quotations from the text.
But distinctions have developed between the style that I adopt in the occasional reviews that I do for other publications and the book talk that I engage in on this blog. That phrase, “book talk,” gets at the heart of one of the distinctions. While I do post a number of formally conventional reviews here, quite often my thoughts on a book are woven into a broader discussion. And even in the reviews that appear in a conventional form, I’m apt to take a more personal tone on blog that I would elsewhere. In an early post, I wrote that my goal here is simply to work out my own responses to the books that I read and, in so doing, to figure out what I can take from them as a writer and as a reader. Adhering to this goal can make for a much more partial and subjective account than a paid review in a newspaper or magazine demands.
Other distinctions: I would never dream of reviewing a book for another publication without finishing the book first. But, given the ongoing nature of blogging, I’m quite likely to post my thoughts about a book in instalments as I work my way through it. Also, I might write on blog about the factors that led me to abandon a given book before finishing it. Finally, I would regard it as a conflict of interest to review a book by a friend for another publication and I wouldn’t accept such an assignment. Here, I wouldn’t hesitate to talk up books by friends if I think that their books are fabulous, though I would certainly be up front about my connection to the author.
What about you, fellow bloggers? What do you think of Updike’s rules? Do you disagree with any of them? Would you add any to his list? Is your reviewing practice different on your blog than it would be (or is) elsewhere?
Update: Bud Parr has created a forum for discussion of Updike's six rules for reviewing over at MetaxuCafé. Click on the link and join the conversation!