(Don Reed in his new solo show, The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh. Photo by Ric Omphroy.)
Someone posted a negative comment to the web copy of my review of Don Reed's The Kipling Hotel, at the Marsh -- a first for me. I've been disagreed with before, of course, but this is the first time a stranger felt so strongly about what I wrote that s/he had to write a response.
My editor gave me good advice about how to deal with this situation: You don't have to respond at all, and if you do, wait an hour after writing before you click "submit." And if the commenter responds to your response, let him/her have the last word unless you're arguing about facts.
Last year, the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, discussed a similar situation. One member received a letter from a director of a show about which he'd written a negative review; the critic was wondering if and how he ought to respond. The rest of the membership offered a range of possible actions. Many suggested he simply ignore it; others said to respond only if the director's tone was civil; still others championed a simple response -- ask for clarification, or say, "Thank you for reading my review so carefully"; some even recommended meeting in person to hash things out.
A stranger on the internet and an artist who's discussed in a review are, of course, different situations and call for different responses. As for my online commenter, I did decide to respond, for two main reasons: S/he put effort into it, and I thought the comment had some good points.
I reject the flat-out "ignore it" philosophy because I think it's a little too easy. And it's not just because of the age we live in, when an internet-fueled plurality of voices knocks would-be professional "arbitrators" off their high horses. It's because, as I've said before, if critics want their own criticism taken seriously, they must take criticism of their criticism seriously.
But it's important to find a middle ground between refusing to "debase" yourself by acknowledging that the comment section exists and defending your writing in a petty back-and-forth. For me, that middle ground will probably look something like standing by my writing much of the time, but ceding a point when the commenter makes a good one. Conveying my honest reaction to a show is my chief aim in writing every review, but that's a lot harder than it sounds; some articles are less successful than others. This comment about my Kipling review really made me question whether the article had the right balance, and for that I am indebted to the commenter.
For now, I'm just glad I haven't received responses as nasty as those the Chronicle's theater critic, Rob Hurwitt, gets (the Chron's online comment section is a notorious free-for-all). Such is the price of being as close to this town gets to a critical arbitrator!