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… Continue reading John Updike’s Writing Wisdom (part I): Book Reviews