Updike’s guide to reviewing

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 [theater], and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
—John Updike

I’ve been reviewing Philadelphia theater for a couple years now, and I feel like I’m just starting to think about what I’m doing and about what criticism is and should be. I came across this guide to reviewing literature and art by John Updike. I found it really informative and I’m trying to incorporate its precepts into my criticism.  Reviewing is not easy, and I don’t know how successful I will be, or how valid this guide is, but I’ve taken it into consideration. (I’ve changed references to “books” to “plays” and the like, but left all the masculine pronouns. See Updike’s wikipedia page for the original list, first published in his introduction to Picked-Up Pieces, his 1975 collection of prose.)

1. Try to understand what the author [or director, or actor] 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 [play]‘s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
3. Confirm your description of the [work] with quotation from the [play], 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 [play] is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre 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 [play] 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 [or director, or company, or actors] “in his place,” making of him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the [work], 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 [theater], and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

 

Features, Theater - Tags: , , - 2 comments

About the author

Christopher Munden

Your faithful correspondent and publisher Christopher Munden has written and edited for many publications, websites, and cultural institutions. He was an editor/publisher of the Philly Fiction book series, collections of short stories written by local writers and set in Philadelphia. He's also a soccer coach and a pretty good skier.