Jan 27, 2009, 09:54AM

Updike's Greatest Legacy

John Updike is dead, and an honorary salute to his fantastic "six rules for book reviewing" is in order.

John Updike, famous creator of Rabbit Angstrom, has died. The cause is being stated as lung cancer; he was 76.

In a career that spanned 50 years, Updike's Nabokov- and Flaubert-inspired poetic language went in and out of fashion, as did his phallocentric concerns. (David Foster Wallace recounted a description of Updike from a female colleague: "Just a penis with a thesaurus.")

It is true that Updike's voluminous output (stories, novels, poetry, essay collections, art criticism, memoirs, even a book on golf) and unwaveringly "pretty" prose occasionally typecasted him as a relic from a different time. I'm regrettably unfamiliar with much of the man's fiction, having read only Rabbit, Run and a scattered handful of short stories, but today's common, cynical take on Updike ignores his tremendous book criticism. As a reviewer for The New Yorker, as well as in his many introductions to books by Graham Greene, Kafka, Bruno Schulz, John O'Hara, and more, Updike conveyed the pleasures of reading like few others. He understood that a critic's job is foremost that of a professional appreciator.

Of Flann O'Brien: "[O]rthodox narration was never his forte; at his best, he went where he would, at a blithe speed, and carried the reader—a dazzle of verbal dust in his eyes—along."

On why, culturally speaking, we need literary biographies: "We read, those of us who do, literary biographies for a variety of reasons, of which the first and perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author–to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre, in the presence of a voice and mind we have come to love."

One comes to these kinds of loving descriptions by acknowledging, to quote John Leonard, another great book reviewer who recently passed, that the great honor of being a critic is the occasional opportunity to write "a thank-you note to a wonderful writer." Updike knew how to do this, to explain why good writing matters. Luckily, he left us with his own rules for reviewing, a list that every aspiring critic should keep coming back to before sending off a draft to our editors:

"My rules," he writes, "shaped intaglio-fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:

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. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

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?

Those, particularly #1, are good enough wisdom on their own, but Updike generously appended a sixth, and gave it its own paragraph. His own words are most appropriate to end on:

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 an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) 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 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."


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