How To Review a Book

I’ve seen many bloggers work out their own approach to reviewing books, covering all aspects – from whether or not you ought to say where you got a book, to whether or not negative reviews should feature at all on a blog.  Some bloggers (wisely) just outline their own preferences – others, at the shoutier end of the blogosphere which I frequent very seldom and to which none of you belong, lay down the law for all bloggers.  I’m not going to attempt to do either, but today I stumbled across John Updike’s criteria for writing a review (which first appeared in the introduction to his essay collection Picking Up The Pieces in 1975) and I thought it was very interesting, and maybe even very sensible… what do you think?

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 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 précis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre 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 any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never … try to put the author “in his place,” making of 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 of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

36 thoughts on “How To Review a Book

  • June 12, 2012 at 12:32 am
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    Hello Simon

    This is a very fair and thorough way to review a book.

    A good set of rules

    Helenxx

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:42 am
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      They're not bad, are they? Especially for a professional book reviewer. What we're doing is a little different, of course.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 1:25 am
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    I like having guidelines. I am by no means a book reviewer. However, I do enjoy writing about books I have enjoyed. I always question if I am saying enough or too much. Thanks, Bonnie

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:43 am
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      I really love ripping a book apart (metaphorically, of course) but I restrain myself from doing so! It's much more difficult to write positive things about a book, and write them well.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 2:21 am
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    How sensible and how often ignored. (I'm afraid I do find myself feeling like a corrections officer once in a while.) If only the professional reviewers in, say, the New York Times Book Review, would follow these guidelines.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:43 am
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      I've never really read newspaper reviews, but the few I *have* read seem to disregard these rules altogether – often it's difficult to discern which book they're writing about until you're on the final paragraph.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 3:43 am
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    I used to include quotes but was asked a couple of times from publishers to remove them. I decided it was just easier to avoid quoting the book.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:44 am
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      Really? I haven't had that – but I suppose it's quite rare that I review new books. Were they proofs that you were quoting from? If not, they surely don't have any right to ask you to remove them?

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  • June 12, 2012 at 4:08 am
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    Interesting. I am always torn between "reviewing" a book and simply "book talking" a book. I like the interaction I get from others who've read the same book and must say that is the primary reason I blog – for this particular interaction. However, I realize that most of my readers have not read the same book and a "review' is helpful to them. I guess I shoot for somewhere between a review and a book talk. I think all Updike's review rules can be contested anyways (except #4 =). We bloggers write for a different audience than he did so it's natural we have our own goals/rules for writing. But it is nice to have "guidelines" for when I'm lost looking at a blank page.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:45 am
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      I agree – we're not professional reviewers, and so we don't need to have concrete guidelines – book talk is something rather different.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 7:09 am
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    Thanks for sharing this, Simon. As an author, I'm happy with Updike's guidlelines. It's very hard when readers review the book they would have written or the book they think you *should* have written. ;-)

    I'd go further with his rule #4. Far too many reviews (not yours!) give away far too much plot. (One of my lengthy but favourable Amazon reviews is followed by a comment from another irked reader who says she now feels she doesn't need to read the book.) If I had my way, reviewers would refrain from revealing anything the author has spent some time setting up as a surprise.

    I''m always happy to be quoted ("By their fruits ye shall know them") and that seems to be a good way of conveying a book's "voice" – often hard to define.

    I think reviewing is a very difficult & underrated art and I'm constantly amazed by how well bloggers do it. I know I'd be quite hopeless. I can just about manage to write a summary or a cover "blurb" for my novels!

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:47 am
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      I do find no.4 difficult sometimes – I never give away the endings of books, but I often find it difficult to remember whether a plot point was revealed on p.20 or p.200! Blurbs (I presume those not written by the author) often give away far, far, FAR too much – many times I've seen them include things which weren't revealed until the final fifty or so pages of the book.

      Although I'm not a novelist, I have certainly had the experience of people criticising me for the thesis they wish I'd written!

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  • June 12, 2012 at 7:31 am
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    Very interesting. I don't follow any particular rules but if I did these sound sensible and probably what I do anyway. However he doesn't quite include what I generally try to do, which is to give some sense of what I think the book is really ABOUT — not the plot, but the important underlying idea/s. I suppose that could coincide with the first point here, but in fact of course what the author intended is not always what the book actually conveys. I like the final point, though I rarely review books I don't like.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:48 am
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      That is a nice distinction, Harriet – I often find it difficult to pinpoint the ideas/themes, but it's very rewarding when I feel that I have, to some extent.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 9:32 am
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    I like Updike's points! It's something I always think about when I write my reviews but most of the time I think I only follow a few rules, mostly about how the book made me feel. However, I've been meaning to put more quotes in but as I'm not a great note-taker, I often forget. But one of the things I like most about reading book blogs is the diversity – it would be boring if everyone wrote in the same way.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:49 am
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      Updike doesn't really seem to involve the reviewer's personality, does he? And I think that *is* an important aspect in blogging – because it's not simply an objective assessment of the book, even if that were possible.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 10:44 am
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    I agree with trying to understand the purpose of the writer, and quoting the book and not just describe it.

    However I disagree about #4 vehemently. Perhaps for recent novels it makes sense, but if I'm reviewing a novel from fifty or one hundred years ago, I think people have had enough time to read the novel for themselves. Also, in order to properly discuss a novel it's necessary to describe what it's about and to reveal plot points.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:50 am
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      I'm afraid I feel quite strongly in the other direction, Miguel! I really hate it when classics are treated differently from modern novels, in terms of plots being given away – because for each person, it's their first encounter with the book, and it should be unspoilt.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 1:30 pm
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    As a reader, I agree with Linda. I really dislike being told in a book or movie review "…there's a wonderful twist at the end." Great.

    Sorry, Miguel, but I figure even if a book's been around 50-100 years, it's still a new book to someone who has only just discovered it. Despite the passage of time, it's still a book to be enjoyed in itself, not to be looked upon as a school assignment.

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    • June 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm
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      The writings of Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera and Umberto Eco, just to name a few, would be impossible without spoiling. You can't discuss a novel deeply going over specific aspects of its plot.

      But I should also add that in general I don't mind being spoiled.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:52 am
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      I've not read Calvino or Eco, but the Kunderas I've read don't seem to have any significant plot twists in them, to my mind! Or, rather, the style is more important than the plot – I'd happily write about them without mentioning a thing that happened!

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  • June 12, 2012 at 1:32 pm
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    An interesting post, I hope I am successful in not giving too much away in my own reviews as I personally hate spoilers.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:53 am
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      It's tricky, isn't it? I tend not to read reviews of books if I *know* already that I'm going to read the book. And I never read introductions first, because they always give away far too much.

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  • June 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm
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    Helpful guidelines! I'm going to have to bookmark these for when I review again (whenever that might be–it's been slow reading this year).

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:53 am
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      I have to say, I'm admiring Updike more than I thought I would, for these!

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  • June 13, 2012 at 9:47 am
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    I think the first one is so so important and although I dont follow any rules as such I do always try to bear in mind what the author set out to achieve and if that worked or not.

    Last thing anyone wants is to read a review on say the Great Gatsby and having the reviewer complain that the characters are too shallow.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:54 am
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      Haha! Yes. I don't like the Great Gatsby, but for other reasons…

      Of course, there is the flip-side of the coin that sometimes you *can* tell what an author is trying to do, and they still fail. But many authors only think you've 'understood' them if you think they're great ;)

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  • June 15, 2012 at 6:45 pm
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    I find #2 especially helpful when reading a review, particularly when you're doing so to decide whether or not you want to take the plunge yourself (rather than trying crib their opinions after the event…). Like pussreboots, though, I'm never sure how much I can quote from a more recent novel or review copy without upsetting a publisher – I'd be interested to know whether they were glowing reviews or a bit more critical, when the publisher got upset?!

    Reviews that complain about the characters as though they're friends/colleagues/REAL PEOPLE and that they don't 'get on' shouldn't be allowed.

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    • June 18, 2012 at 8:55 am
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      I never used to include quotations, but I've found reviewing so much easier since I did! I need them to arrange my review around.

      And oh yes, that final point – yes! I get that especially at book group.

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  • June 17, 2012 at 2:26 pm
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    Interesting. Including quotes is something I never used to do but have recently been making a point of.

    I'm not sure I 100% agree with your additional guideline. Yes, often it's a bad idea to review a book you're pre-disposed to like or dislike, but actually a good writer can make a virtue of this in their review. So long as you're up-front about it. However, I do agree with "Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind."

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    • June 18, 2012 at 9:09 am
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      Ah, that wasn't me, that was Updike too! I'm not entirely sure I agree with him either – but I wouldn't read a book I knew I'd hate and then just say I hated it, either!

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  • August 30, 2012 at 12:54 am
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    Thanks for posting these sane and straightforward suggestions—both Updike's and yours. Your addendum helpfully points out the often-ignored obvious: reviews don't offer objectivity. I find priceless a trusted reviewer who does not confuse preferences with quality, and I like one who looks for something to love. Can't help but think of the line from Pixar's Ratatouille, in the mouth of the food critic Anton Ego: "But the bitter truth we critics must face is that the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so."

    Thanks again!
    Celia Wolff
    spiritswitness.wordpress.com

    Reply

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