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The value of the product of the book review process is evidenced by the extraordinary effort required in balancing the efforts involved in writing a review – paying close attention to the work itself, of course, but also maintaining an almost meta-theoretical perspective on what is being reviewed and why as well as how. The result can be something of inestimable value.
Looking back upon the working practices of literary critics Jacques Derrida and his contemporaries, the prominent role of the book review is striking. Reviewing books was not a marginal activity. Rather, the book review was central to the practice of knowledge formation, dissemination and debate.
For Derrida and his milieu, the book review was the mechanism by which they could respond and react, it was the means by which they pushed and prodded at the limits of knowledge, where debates were forged and where books were picked for their explicit or even latent properties and values. Reviews were also the origins of new ideas and new thinking. In some instances, these reviews may well have spilled over into one-upmanship, point-scoring or even pointless squabbling. But, nevertheless, the book review was seen to be a space in which new knowledge could emerge from these dialectic exchanges and from the cut and thrust of debate. The review was never simply just a review; it was also a site of contestation that could be used to provoke new insights or to identify questions that were yet to be addressed. In short, the book review was a cherished and nurtured means of debate.
Many debates of course centered on existential, epistemological aspects of the review process itself. In “Greatly Exaggerated,” a review of H.L. Hix’s book, Morte d’Author: An Autopsy, David Foster Wallace considered the literary fall-out after Roland Barthes declared the “death of the author.” Barthes had argued against the practice of invoking the notion of an author in distilling any meaning from a literary work. After introducing this complicated literary/philosophical issue, Wallace engages the argument, defending the “life” of the author. He explains that, “for those of us civilians who know in our gut that writing is an act of communication between one human being and another, the whole question seems sort of arcane.”
The review, then, continues that conversation – a conversation into which any reader can eavesdrop. Inherent in that conversation are the reviewers’ (and eavesdroppers’) own ideas, perspectives and biases, rendering the review to be inherently organic.
In recent years, it seems intense discussion has focused not as much on what to review, or the mechanism of review, but on the quality and, indeed, efficacy, of the review process itself. Steve Wasserman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review in 2007 that “book coverage is not only meager but shockingly mediocre. The pabulum that passes for most reviews is an insult to the intelligence of most readers.” Wasserman’s lament seems widespread, varying only in degrees of severity. However, what criticism might practically entail – what tactics, what techniques, what fine tools – is left unelaborated except in the most amorphous terms.
Turning to one of humanity’s most prolific reviewers, John Updike, we glean at least one view describing the proper process of reviewing. Although it is the novels and stories that have kept Updike a household name for fifty years, Updike had also generated eight collections of essays, covering a wide variety of topics. Of these volumes, the six largest have been devoted mostly to a single subject – books.
In Picked-up Pieces (1975), Updike’s second collection of essays, he lists his rules for reviewing:
1) Try to understand what the author wishes 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 oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?
While not actually numbered, he added what he called a potential sixth category, which consisted of several different admonitions, including not accepting for review a book one is not predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Nor should one imagine oneself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, or a warrior in an ideological battle.
All better literary criticism tends to abide by these rules as a matter of course. 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.
Rather than caring about books per se, Updike cared more about doing his job. The job in this case demanded that he point out flaws in the work of a fellow fiction writer and corroborate those points with evidence.
Although some readers are uneasy with negativity, an author’s reputation need not be deemed sullied, and that is because a text is not exhausted by a work of criticism, only informed by it. We leave a properly written review thinking not about negativity, nor about the reviewer, but thinking, as good criticism makes us, about a writer’s choices. That we ultimately do or do not agree with the reviewer’s assessment is of no importance. That the assessment is clear and well founded allows us to engage a point of view with which we can also, if we are so disposed, argue privately.
To write book reviews well, as Updike makes clear, is uncommon. Reading a book well, not to say writing about it well, requires time, diligence, and intelligence. But it also demands something perhaps rarer still, at which few writers necessarily excel – a quality that, in fundamental ways, seems at odds with the creative endeavor: an abiding humility.
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