How to Read: Part 5 – John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it has created a democracy of the masses. Anyone with an Amazon or a GoodReads account can be a book reviewer with the ability to influence a huge audience. Opinions about literature are no longer held in the tight-fisted hands of a select few elite…and I think this is ultimately a good thing.

However, as we all know, some people are better reviewers than others, and the comments section can sometimes read like the unfiltered Id of the worst humanity has to offer.

In an effort to offer some guidance on how to review books with grace and precision, I’d like to re-post this wonderful article by Maria Popova in The Atlantic on John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism. Popova writes:

[…] what E. B. White once wisely pointed to as the role and social responsibility of the writer—”to lift people up, not lower them down”—I believe to be true of the role and social responsibility of the critic as well, for thoughtful criticism is itself an art and a creative act.

John Updike is a good model for how to be a good reviewer because he was both a thoughtful reviewer and one of Americas greatest and most prolific authors. For those of you reviewing books on Amazon, GoodReads, or anywhere else, here are some tips from John Updike on how to do it well:

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.

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?

6. 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 idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never […] 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 praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based on the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Works Cited:

Popova, Maria. “John Updike’s 6 Rules for Constructive Criticism.” The Atlantic. May 2, 2012.

Updike, John. Picked-Up Pieces: Essays. Random House. 1977.

Series Navigation<< How to Read: Part 4 – The Rhetoric Stage

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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