Writing book reviews: How to post # 2

I have three new books:

Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John by Helen Trinca
The Memory Trap by Andrea Goldsmith
All That Is by James Salter

I don’t know when I’ll read them. I already have so many unread. But I’ll put them into my inventory and put them beside the bed and get to them eventually. I’m going to one of Andrea’s launches (I was lucky enough to do a Writers Victoria year-long course called Advanced Year of the Novel with her, in 2011 I think it was.) I’ll be my usual fan-girl and get it signed. There’s something about getting a book signed by the author.

On Sunday I’m flying interstate for a day’s workshop. Should be fun.

And I’ve been giving lots of thought to my trying to write reviews. Today’s snippets are care of an article written by Wyatt Mason on the critical reviewing of John Updike, and also another note from my reading thus far, something that resonated deeply and I think will prove to be the entry-point for my approach to writing reviews.

The article titled Among the Reviewers, John Updike and the book-review bugaboo by Wyatt Mason from Harper’s Magazine, December 2007, has some useful bits. It mentions Zadie Smith’s call for a ‘far more thorough reader’ and then contextualises an imminent dipping into Updike’s reviewing methodology by telling the reader about a little bookshop in a small town in Massachusetts which houses a bunch of publisher review copies sent to Updike for his perusal and notations, and how you can visit the store and sit on a couch and look at them and read over Updike’s margin notes. It’s reassuring, to me anyway, to read that sometimes these marginalia would consist of things like ‘ugh’ and ‘clichéd’ and ‘good’ beside something he liked. If it were as simple as then transposing these sorts of responses onto a page and calling it a review, then we could all do it easily. Mason makes the point that to read any of these books that Updike read with a view to reviewing makes clear his attempts to be thorough (Zadie would be pleased). Comments are not only in the margins but in the appendices and footnotes. (I wonder if Updike ever reviewed Infinite Jest – now that is some marginalia I would like to see.)

Mason says that it’s clear that Updike’s notes are on the top-level seeking to decide whether a piece is good or bad (something that is ‘one of the immediate jobs of criticism’ according to Mason) but then also indicate the intention to drill down to a  more nuanced criticism (which Terry Eagleton said ‘[is a way of] looking at meaning not as an object but as a practice’). Mason adds, Updike also undertook a ‘more considered task “that of interrogation”‘ and says the most often-occurring punctuation in the margins is the question mark.

What one is witness to is a patient reader’s private conversation with a book.

There are 6 points that Updike listed as guidelines for writing book reviews. In this Mason article, there are 5 but I know there’s been a sixth added in some versions because I’ve seen it. I can’t lay my hands on my copy so you’ll just have to trust me, or google it yourself. When you read these five though, bear in mind that Updike was Christian in thinking and so the do-unto-others credo informs his outline of tips:

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-ling 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 oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

[This last point is curious to me: sure it’s his and not yours? I’m guessing this refers to matters of interpretation? Understanding? Is it connected to point 1?]

It’s okay to be critical but the reviewer needs to make an argument and give reasons why. This is what builds credibility, and with reviewers such as Michiko Kakutani, whose reputation for brutality is renowned, I wonder how her reviews are structured and what guidelines or personal limits, if any, they follow. I’ll look her up for another post. And as Mason states, an early critical review by Updike of JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, published in the New York Times in 1961, did not negatively affect Salinger’s reputation because Updike’s review left the reader ‘thinking not about negativity, nor about Updike, but thinking, as good criticism makes us, about a writer’s choices.’ It doesn’t matter if a reader then reads a book and agrees or not, what’s important is that ‘the assessment is clear and well-founded’. Mason says, a text is not exhausted by a work of criticism, only informed by it.

Mason goes on to suggest some questions a reviewer might ask herself as she is making notes while reading and collating her responses, questions that he believes Updike employed as his notes show a curiosity: How is this made? Why does it work? Why did it fall apart? To me, these are helpful. If I can keep my focus on simple things like this then I can see a way forward. It’s about focus, not getting lost in synopsis or character description; more about working out why the plot failed, or why there was no plot and it worked, why the main character did or didn’t ‘work’ – it’s about going deeper than the external appearance to look at the skeleton, muscles and circulatory system. About focusing on my response and possibly why I have reacted in such a way.

Whether writers or not, readers will often prove more responsive to certain effects than to others, those that in some way speak to them directly. (“What else have you underlined?” asks one character looking at the marginalia in the book of another in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound. “What everybody underlines,” she says. “Everything that says ‘me.'”)*

This is true. I find myself doing it all the time. Passages or descriptions or actions or character inner-worlds that either reflect myself or ways I like to write or my ideas of other writerly aesthetics. They don’t have to be elements that I ‘like’ or approve of or agree with; there just needs to be some sort of connection made, and it can be negative.

A couple more quotations from the article, Frank Kermode said of the critic’s role:

we shouldn’t get above ourselves… [the critic’s job is to] serve literature.

So my ‘take-home’ points from the above are these (in addition to the 5 tips listed):
be thorough / decide if it’s good or bad and then drill down to look at meaning not as object but as a practice ** /  interrogate and be curious / make an argument (presumably if response is positive as well as if negative: say why – How is this made? Why does it work? Why does it fall apart?) / leave the reader thinking about the writer’s choices.


The second article I have here is called Confessions of (Another) Book Reviewer, by Lev Grossman, May 9 2012 from Time Magazine. Here are some quotations I underlined, and I think they flesh out my learning from the above Mason article.

On the question of reviewing only books that you ‘like’:

I review books if they do something I’ve never seen done before; or if I fall in love with them or if they shock me or piss me off or otherwise won’t leave me alone; if they alter the way my brain works; if I can’t stop thinking about them; if for whatever reason I absolutely have to tell people about them.

This is interesting. There is a book that I read last year and while I haven’t recommended it to anyone, and I haven’t raved about it in my head to myself it has stuck with me. Certain descriptions of place have stayed in my brain; certain of the characters have stayed in my brain. If this isn’t a sign of a successful book, then I don’t know what is. But does a book need more to be considered successful? Maybe these could be one of my points (if I made a list) – that aspects of the book need to stick with me and become a part of my thought landscape well after reading?

Grossman says:

Over time I retreated to the following position: I am a book-loving human being, and if I love something, then some other book-loving human elsewhere will probably love it too



John Updike advised reviewers: “Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast.” And I do insofar as I can. But the book critic is in the weird position of being there on behalf of both the writer and the reader. You submit to the spell, but if the anaesthetic wears off during the operation, you reserve the right to wake up and scream bloody murder.

Yes to that too.

I don’t write hatchet jobs, though… I used to. There was a time when I actually believed, because I was an ass, that as a critic I was an avenging angel with a flaming sword, and that part of my job was to help rid the culture of books that were sucking up more of the literary oxygen than they deserved. So if I read a book and hated it, I said so.

Then I grew up. Don’t get me wrong: I am as bad-tempered a reader as you’ll ever see, and I’m a great hater of bad books, and possibly even of good ones. I enjoy a well-reasoned rubbishing as much as the next reader… James Wood on Paul Auster in the New Yorker for example – “The pleasing, slightly facile books come out almost every year… and the applauding reviewers line up… to get the latest issue.” And so on. I think pieces like that do something important. They open up space in the culture where we can actually talk honestly about writers whose work is in danger of becoming sacred and critically unassailable. Books that aren’t actually scripture shouldn’t be treated like they’re sacred… But I don’t write hatchet jobs. A thoroughly negative review needs to justify its existence thoroughly, and for that you need a lot of words, and TIME’s book reviews don’t run long enough. So if I don’t like a book, I leave it alone.

And this, the best, most resonant part (for me):

I think of the reviewer’s role now as being more about providing context for a book, tracing its lineage in the tradition and locating it in the literary topography of the present, and all that touchy-feely sort of thing. The critics I love these days do something slightly different from what they used to: they don’t just judge, they open up that weird, intense, private dyad that forms between book and reader and let other people inside. They tell the story, the meta-story, of what happened when they opened the book and began to read the story.

And it’s this quotation that I think makes meaning of the bit above, where Mason talks about meaning not as object but as a practice. It’s in this passage that I think I see my reviewing light; focusing on that intense, indefinable space that happens when a person reads a book, that opens up between book and reader, or even between author and reader. And to let other people inside what that space has been like for me; maybe that’s it.

* have tried to fix this stupid punctuation explosion here, but cannot manage to. Och wordpress, why are you so weird?

** Not sure entirely what this means. Requires more ponderage.

2 thoughts on “Writing book reviews: How to post # 2

  1. I’m bookmarking this page, Jenny – there is so much valuable information here! I also love point 5 about judging a book “Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?”.

    Fantastic post 😀

    1. Thanks Dianne, so glad you found it of interest and possible use. Not sure if you write reviews, sometimes it seems that most writers do also do reviews. I’m determined to learn how to do it so that I can put the occasional review up here because I do read an awful lot and I read widely. It’s also good for me to try to learn new writing things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s