John Updike’s a writer whose nonfiction I like far more than his much more vaunted fiction, which I find trivial and cloistered. (I can’t find an entryway into his world of New England suburbanites undergoing yet another marital crisis, and his sexual politics make me sigh. Then again, I could say much the same about Philip Roth’s oeuvre, and I love him, so maybe I’m just full of it.) Anyway, Updike’s book criticism for the New Yorker and elsewhere is superb. Thirty years ago, he offered up six rules of book criticism that are useful for other forms of arts criticism as well.
My favorite is #6, which begins this way:
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 ideological 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.
The above tendencies, of course, are precisely what’s wrong with the current incarnation of the New York Times Book Review. NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus could learn from Updike. So could James Wood.