To peruse copies of books that Updike read with the intention of reviewing—including Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost; Alice Munro’s Selected Stories; Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin; Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex; and many others—is to meet a reader who, in a most inarguable way, is a picture of thoroughness. The margins run with comments, even in appendices, even by footnotes. “I read slower than I write,” Updike wrote, rather amazingly, in 1975, suggesting that these annotative efforts represent a substantial investment of time. If criticism is, as Terry Eagleton has said, a way of “looking at meaning not as an object but as a practice,” then one can see in Updike’s review copies the humble, rudimentary motions of that practice. As often as not, his marginalia may be seen doing one of the most immediate jobs of criticism, which is to distinguish, however arbitrarily, good things from bad. And yet, in the main, Updike may be spied undertaking a more considered task: that of interrogation. The form of punctuation that predominates in his margins is the question mark. What one is witness to is a patient reader’s private conversation with a book.
There is more in Mason’s piece like this rules for reviewers for example:
In Picked-up Pieces (1975), Updike’s second collection of essays, he lists his rules for reviewing:
- Try to understand what the author wishes to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
- 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.
- Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
- Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending….
- If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
All better literary criticism tends to abide by these rules as a matter of course. Dale Peck was ultimately easy to discredit as a voice of critical discernment not because of the severity of his pronouncements (his dismissals of Nabokov, Joyce, Faulkner, et al.) or even his showboating rudeness; rather, he courted his own dismissal through his increasing disinterest in crafting arguments that would plausibly substantiate, through textual evidence, his condemnations. Critical authority can only be earned, and Updike’s rules represent the very minimum, practical, practicable means by which one can go about building authority: with direct and responsible recourse to the books themselves.
It is a lengthy piece, but worth your time nonetheless. Take a look!