by Erin Dalpini
I’m working on a new project—a book review of a contemporary novel I recently read; although I’ve done this before, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a fantastic book review.
Last fall, when I was doing some research for a review of Toni Morrison’s newest novel, A Mercy, I dabbled around on the Internet to see what others were saying about this book so that I could join in that conversation. I’d already read the book and had formed an impression of it, but I knew I needed to know what the experts thought.
One of the first pieces I found, a review in the The New Yorker caused me to sit up and take notice—it was an engaging, entertaining, and also gave me some new insight into the novel. When I looked for the byline, to my surprise, it was the literary legend John Updike. Updike, though best-remembered for his extensive body of fiction (short stories, novels, poetry), produced an equally-impressive array of literary criticism and essays. In short: the man was prolific. And he had an extraordinary way of making a book review anything but mundane. This piece was sharp, witty, informed, concise—essentially, it was the best book review I’d ever read and it left quite an impression on me.
So, returning to the writer’s block, I was curious: what did Updike have to say about writing book reviews? And what do modern day writers do when they have an obscure question like that?
Right. Turn to Google.
I was fortunate early on to stumble across a post (from a book blog I promptly bookmarked) pointing to hidden treasure: an older post, from the blog of the National Book Critics Circle, citing helpful tips from the master himself (one that’s so dated it redirects readers to the new host that, from what I can tell, does not have the piece archived). The advice is from Updikes’s Picked Up Pieces, a collection of his assorted prose. Three points (of six) I found incredibly helpful…
“Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.”
I know, this point seems to go without saying. Yet it’s quite easy to slip into plot summary, and there’s a fine line between engaging readers in a story they know nothing about and ruining the delight of cracking open a book in which one expects to be taken on a journey of discovery. When writing a book review, one must be careful not to ruin the suspense the author has so painstakingly taken time to craft.
“Give [the author] enough direct quotation–at least one extended passage–of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form [his/her] own impression, can get [his/her] own taste.”
I felt smug reading this because I’d actually employed this the past two times I’d written book reviews, but I’ve read a number of reviews that haven’t. The key is to pick a passage poignant enough to whet a reader’s appetite, an appetizer if you will, that also highlights an important moment in the piece and shows off a bit of the writer’s style. That way—as Updike says—the reader can “form an impression” without the reviewer getting in the way.
“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame [him/her] for not achieving what [he/she] did not attempt.”
I like this a lot. Too often we let our own expectations shade our judgment of a work, whether it be a movie, novel, or performance. As a former English major trained in New Criticism (and other approaches), I recognize that thinking about authorial intent can be a slippery slope, but it’s certainly helpful in making sure one is writing a fair book review. Don’t criticize the author because he or she took the story a different direction than what you imagined; try and make sense of why the author made those choices and how that made you feel.
For the rest of Updike’s tips, check out his introduction to Picked Up Pieces.