[Sunday Salon] : John Updike’s six ‘golden’ rules for book reviewing

The recent and devastating news of John Updike’s passing has been prevalently reported over the past few days, and for good reason – the man, by all accounts, was a literary legend. And, while I shamefully admit to having never read any of Mr. Updike’s novels (the Rabbit series is definitely on my ‘hit list’ for future reading now), all of the focus on Mr. Updike during the past week has reminded me of a post I read back in 2006, one I stumbled across while scouring the Web for tips on academic book reviewing.

The post in question was written by John Freeman at the Critical Mass blog (the blog of the National Book Critics Circle), and its content impressed me so much that it’s lurked in my bookmarks ever since. John’s post contains a list of six rules to follow when reviewing books, and the rules were compiled by none other than John Updike, as part of the introduction to his 1975 collected work of assorted essays – Picked up Pieces. It would be wrong of me to plagiarise John’s post in order to list Mr. Updike’s six reviewing rules here, so I invite you to go along to the Critical Mass blog to absorb them (and absorb them I’m sure you will).

Why have I’ve chosen the Sunday Salon to point fellow Saloners to Mr. Updike’s review rules? Well, like my previous Sunday Salon post which pointed to Virginia Woolf’s excellent ‘Love of Reading’ essay reprinted by the Guardian, this is ‘liquid gold’ guidance for what many of us do – book reviewing, so it’s of significant value to most of us!

My thanks go to John Freeman for introducing me to Mr. Updike’s rules, and my unfaltering gratitude of course goes to John Updike for compiling them in the first place. May you Rest in Peace Mr. Updike!

That’s all from me for the first Sunday Salon of the month. Hopefully see you next week. Until then – have a great seven days filled with bookish wonderment and glee.

**This post has been specifically written for Sunday Salon participation**

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books).


  1. I loved reading Picked Up Pieces and Hugging The Shore, veritable tomes of Updike essays and literary criticism. I still have my copies and I remember his good advice about reviews. He will be missed.

  2. Seem like good advice to me.

    January was well…veryproductive

  3. I posted my thanks for your correction on my blog, but wanted to pop over and say thanks here, too! I love Updike’s rules for reviewing, too. There was a great retrospective on Updike’s life on our Sunday morning show today. It featured an interview with Updike 10 years ago where he said he wanted to leave a legacy of beautiful writing and an appreciation for the everyman. Wonderful!!

    Happy Sunday,


  4. What a nice tribute! John Updike is one of many authors whose name appears on my must-read-someday list. I was saddened to learn of his death. Thank you for posting the link to his rules for reviewing. I’m sure I’d read it before but couldn’t tell you when or where.

  5. Thanks for sharing this! I really liked the advice he gave and will keep it in mind when writing my own reviews!

  6. Rob,

    Those are wonderful links – I thoroughly enjoyed reading Virginia Woolf’s essay and John Updike’s rules. Thanks


  7. Very interesting. I’m not so sure I agree with quoting long passages, though. I can see why it would be useful, (and why so many people do it), but I find that I usually just skim on past block quotes unless they’re very, very short. I’d rather hear what the reviewer thought about the book; if it sounds like something I’d enjoy, I’ll read the novel itself.

  8. That’s an interesting link – I like the advice and it’s something I do try and keep to: never give away the plot and the outcome because it’s a spoiler. I so agree. Like you, I haven’t read too much Updike. I keep telling myself to read some of his latest books but then was put off by the reviews of his latest novels as not being up to scratch. Good question therefore: should you trust reviewers??

  9. Very interesting thanks for the links!

    Hope you read (and love) Norwegian Wood 🙂

  10. I really, really like his rules. Especially this: “Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation.”

    This is advice some professional reviewers should keep in mind…it’s not that rare to see a review be used as an excuse to dismiss an author or even an entire genre or medium.

    Thanks for sharing the link.

  11. Rob (Twitter: robaroundbooks)

    @Sandra – Both of these seem like good titles to pick up then? I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

    @Gautami – Glad it was of some use to you.

    @Karen – My pleasure, although I was a little embarrassed to point it out in case you considered me a know-it-all :o). As I live in the UK I’ve seen little in the way of tributes for John Updike. Sure the usual book orientated newspapers such as the Guardian and Independant have been running a lot of material, but there has been absolutely nothing on the tv :o(

    @Literary Feline – It’s a shame that his death has reminded us that we should be reading his work, but I’m sure we will both get to him one day and discover why so many people are enamoured to him.

    @Samantha – My pleasure. Glad you found it of some use.

    @Robin – Again, my pleasure!

    @Memory – I couldn’t agree with you more. Eight years of academic essays has taught me to be as succinct as possible with my quotes. That said, if you’re trying to give other readers a taste of the work your reviewing then a decent size quote is needed. I tend to post a quote at the end of my reviews, under the heading of ‘notable quote’ so the reader gets a good sample of the book in question, but it doesn’t interfere with my review per se. Best of both worlds? Maybe :o)

    @Seachanges – Nice to hear from you too :o) I absolutely couldn’t agree with you (or Mr. Updike) more when it comes to giving away spoilers. It’s a fine art being able to tell people just enough about the book in order to inform them and hold their interest, but without giving away too much. It’s a major ‘bugbear’ of mine when I read a book review ahead of reading it myself and someone basically tells me the entire plot..arrgghh!!! The worst one for me lately was finding out ahead of time, who killed the dog in Mark Haddon’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’. I’f you’ve read the book then you’ll know that this is an integral part to the story, at least in the first half of the novel, and I was livid for days :o)

    @Alexa – I’m sure I will enjoy Norwegian Wood, and thanks to you that now may well be sooner rather than later….grrrr!! o)

    @Nymeth – You really look to be the kind of reader who ‘reads between the lines’ :o), and I couldn’t agree with you more. It seems politics are often more of a motivation than simply just delivering a honest and frank review.

    Thank you everyone for your input!