Saturday, September 10, 2011

Severe Words and the People Who Read Them

Jason Zinoman’s recent—dare I call it a think-piece?—about harsh theater criticism covers mostly familiar ground: the notion of an impartial critic is a “fantasy,” so the best a reviewer can do is be explicit about his or her prejudices; passionate words, even if they’re critical, stem from a deep faith in the importance of art, a zeal we need to amplify more than mute. Etc.

But it also offered one point I hadn’t much dwelt on before:

Social networking has made critics more accessible and increasingly allowed artists and those who cover them to exchange ideas, while retaining necessary distance. With the explosion of new media, being a critic today also means you know what it’s like to be harshly attacked. The sting fades.

Critics, in other words, are now getting a taste of their own medicine: reviews of reviews. But like the artists they criticize, critics can choose what to do with that criticism—to read, or to ignore?

More than a few times, I’ve succumbed to reading. Maybe by joining the facebook group of the theater that I’m reviewing, so that I can see whether it posts a link to my article, how it frames that link, and whether people comment. Or perhaps by following the playwright’s blog, to determine if s/he affirmed that I “got” the play.

But reading the criticism^2 always feels like a mistake afterward. I can’t even find a way to describe it that doesn’t sound pathetic and obsessive. More crucially, I don’t think it ever helps me do the most important thing a reviewer should do, which is to be honest. Even if it gets me to question my analysis—which should be a good thing—I do so in a defensive, insecure frame of mind, after which I get the urge to write in such a way that will please those theaters in the future, which is precisely the opposite of what I want to feel.

After all, I can’t expect theater people to appraise my reviews objectively any more than they can expect me to appraise their comments objectively. Even if, as they read my work, they’re not just looking for a pull quote, they can't help but have a subjective interest in the review—so clearly, I shouldn’t take their thoughts personally. (Would I share an masterfully composed but eviscerating article about a show I'd worked on?) Ideally, I would seek responses from regular audience members, editors and other critics, but those are in short supply. If I want to feel as though my writing is being read, often the only responses come from the artists themselves.

So why not just ignore what they write? Get over my juvenile need for validation? I worry that such an attitude delegitimizes the whole project of criticism. If I’m not reading criticism of myself, then why should artists read my criticism of them? Which is just another way of asking my eternal question: What—or, who—is a review for?

At my SF Weekly interview the other day, there was general agreement that the average reader should be the first audience a reviewer thinks of. But I also believe that every review should be grounded in the (however unrealistic) faith that its content could and should impact the artistic community. Reviews lacking that conviction feel shallow, amateur, empty and bored. Not even the most gorgeous prose can elevate them above the solipsism of a yelp review.

In the end, while I respect those artists and writers who really feel that reading reviews only cripples their craft (and who can actually resist the temptation to read), for the rest of us, I think the best plan is to just not take lightly the decision to read others’ thoughts about your work. It should not be an impulse or a default. Instead, you should ask yourself if you’re really ready for it, in the right frame of mind—which often just means being honest with yourself and developing your own opinion of your work before reading someone else’s.

No comments:

Post a Comment