Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Rules for Reviewing

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!


Heather said...

This is very helpful to me as non-reviewer attempting to review! I am often at a loss for words wondering if telling any and all readers that I liked the book or did not like the book, is as important as telling them what the author potentially meant by the book...does that even make sense? Anyway, thank you for this as it will be something I keep in mind.

Rebecca H. said...

I agree with you about distinctions between reviews for blogs and for magazines and newspapers, although I don't have much experience with either. I started off the blog thinking I might write formal reviews on it, but I've realized as I've gone along that I'm not that interested in being "formal" -- informality seems more suited to the blog format. So like you describe, I'm likely to write about something before I finish it, the posts will have a more chatty tone, and I might write about personal responses in a way I wouldn't in other kinds of reviews.

For me, what blogs can do best is provide a record of a reader's very subjective responses -- I want to see the reader's mind at work, not so much his or her "objective" conclusions -- or attempts at them. I thought Updike's rules made a lot of sense, but I don't think I'm doing the same thing as what he's doing. My experience with the blog has actually made me less interested in writing formal reviews at all.

Janelle Martin said...

Currently the "formal" reviews I post on blog are ones that I've written for other publications. These are always preficed with BOOK REVIEW: to distinguish the fact that these are more official reviews. I generally also put the link to the review on the official site.

As I move more to reviewing books on blog that aren't tied to a specific review site, I suspect that I will adopt looser guidelines although I will never give away the plot in my summary. To help with this I follow a friend's advice - to write the plot summary before getting to the halfway point in the book.

I try to infuse my "official" reviews with my own voice but I am much more breezy in my general blogging.

Anonymous said...

I definitely write and even *read* differently for commissioned reviews than I do for blog reviews - for example, on Eve's Alexandria I feel more comfortable speaking in the first person and with making highly subjective statements or with skimming over some aspects of the book. I'm much more likely to attempt a form of objectivity in a commissioned review, particularly if the book isn't one I'd normally read and appreciate for pleasure.

Nevertheless, I think that in both cases honesty is key. I always try and say what I mean. Afterall, the function of a review is to provide a good all-round idea of whether a book is of interest to its readership or to the readership of the review venue.

(Thanks to linking to us btw, I very much enjoyed browsing through your blog and will be back :-))