Updike’s Personal Rules for Literary Criticism

The previous post led me to the Wikipedia page for John Updike in my search for my favorite novel of his (and I’m not so sure it really is Beauty of the Lilies), where I found his personal guide for Literary Criticism. It strikes me as eminently sound, perhaps even conservative:

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 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?
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 any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never… try to put the author “in his place,” making of 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 of reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

What a writer.


  1. "do not give away the ending."

    Eh, I'm not so sure I agree with this point unless one is writing a review rather than a critique. For literary criticism, I try to provide enough information for unfamiliar readers, but I assume that someone coming to the work is already familiar with the work. Maybe I wouldn't intentionally divulge the ending, but I would treat the totality of the work (which is a bit hard to do without giving a sense of the ending).

  2. Quin Finnegan says

    Great point, Theocoid. To be fair to Updike, I think much of what he wrote were articles that fell between "reviews" as you describe them and "criticism" of the kind written by the likes of Eagleton, Girard, or the stuff that appears in the NYRB and the TLS.

  3. Jonathan Webb says

    Great. Thanks Quin.

  4. I must try and make time to read your story in the next few weeks. Had set myself quite a bit of reading to do and will now have to go back to the beginning because I can't remember who anybody is, but will try to do by end Feb.

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