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Rules for Reviewers

(These rules are derived mostly from John Updike, who scribbled a set of rules in his introduction to Picked Up Pieces in 1975. Molly McQuade’s contributions are plucked from her review of the reviews of Michael Ondaatj’s novel Divisadero. Martin Amis’s contributions come from his collection of reviews, The War Against Cliché. We could not have collected these suggestions were it not for the National Book Critics Circle, which has become a kind of library of reviewing. Contributors: John Updike, Roger Ebert, Martin Amis, Ezra Pound, Molly McQuade, W.H. Auden, William Zinsser.)

1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

• Roger Ebert on ‘The Longest Yard’: “There is a sense in which attacking this movie is like kicking a dog for not being better at calculus…. I often practice a generic approach to film criticism in which the starting point for a review is the question of what a movie sets out to achieve. ‘The Longest Yard’ more or less achieves what most of the people attending it will expect. Most of its audiences will be satisfied enough when they leave the theater, although few will feel compelled to rent it on video to share with their friends. So, yes, it’s a fair example of what it is.”

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.

• Martin Amis: “You proceed by quotation. Quotation is the reviewer’s only hard evidence. Or semi-hard evidence. Without it, in any case, criticism is a shop-queue monologue.”

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. Maintain a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser:

a. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike,

b. or committed by friendship to like. (conflict of interest)

c. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind.

• Ezra Pound: “We live in an age of science and of abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to the needs of society, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of The Muses is to persist as a garden.”

• Martin Amis: “In the long run, though, literature will resist leveling and revert to hierarchy. This isn’t the decision of some snob of a belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t… The wanderers feed the animals, they walk on the grass, they step in the flowerbeds. But the garden never suffers. It is, of course, Eden; it is unfallen and needs no care.”

d. Never try to put the author “in his place…. Review the book, not the reputation.

• Martin Amis: “Enjoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember.”

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

• Martin Amis: “The reviewer calmly tolerates the arrival of the new novel or slim volume, defensively settles into it, and then sees which way it rubs him up. The right way or the wrong way. The results of this contact will form the data of the review, without any reference to the thing behind. And the thing behind, I am afraid, is talent, and the canon, and the body of knowledge we call literature….  These feelings [of how a book rubs us] are seldom unadultered; they are admixtures of herd opinions and social anxieties, vanities, touchinesses, and everything else that makes up a self.”

• Molly McQuade: “The work and play of a critic are not just about making nice judgments on the writing or the writer, but also about postponing that moment for long enough to live there in the writing—to live alone as an imaginative soloist who also wants, eventually, to make judgments….. Feeling prospective readers in his midst, the [able] critic … becomes a leading character in the very book [he is reviewing], a character with aptitude and confidence who must still be able, at times, to separate himself from the written characters. The critic thinks, talks, listens, and lives in the review. Yet before that can happen, the critic lives first in the book that will be reviewed by him. [An able] critic … tells the story of living in it to somebody who hasn’t yet gone there to live. Few reviews do this, and few reviewers do it consistently, maybe because it takes time, energy, play, and work.”

f. 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 in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.”

• W.H. Auden: “Judging a work of art is virtually the same mental operation as judging human beings, and requires the same aptitudes: first, a real love of works of art, an inclination to praise rather than blame, and regret when a complete rejection is required.”

7. Consider a work’s successes and failures, not just one or the other.

• Molly McQuade on critics of Michael Ondaatje: “Most critics… either commit rapture or rebuke in their reviews. Although either rapture or rebuke can give me something interesting to read, by itself neither will lead me far enough. The reason is simple: either reaction excludes at least as much as it includes.

8. Explore an idea.

• Molly McQuade: “As critics, we rarely have ideas that are not already a little old, maybe too old to be called ideas. Old ideas are so familiar, to the writer or the reader, that they hardly behave like ideas anymore. What we don’t do is exactly what should be done with an idea: explore, expand, expatiate, imagine.”

• William Zinnser: At its best, criticism is “stylish, allusive, and disturbing. It disturbs us—as criticism often should—because it jogs a set of familiar beliefs and forces us to reexamine them.”

9. Campaign against cliché.

• Martin Amis: “To idealize: all writing is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting clichés. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy, and reverberation of voice.”

Martin Amis on ‘The Lost World’: “Out there, beyond the foliage, you see herds of clichés, roaming free. You will listen in stunned silence to an unearthly cry or a deafening roar. Raptors are rapacious. Reptiles are reptilian. Pain is searing…. Never mind. Crichton has pushed dinosaurs yet deeper into our psyches. And we seem to enjoy having them there. Dinosaurs remind us that our planet is as exotic as any other we can imagine. In essence, it is a children’s book. Like all good bad stuff, it is conjured with eagerness and passion.”