Apr 7, 2013

Who Needs Critics?

When I opine and argue about the state of criticism and arts journalism, as I have often in this space and which I had occasion to do last week on HowlRound, I realize I speak from a position of privilege, which is that for my entire adult life, apart from an odd job here or there, I've made my living exclusively writing and editing about the arts, and the great majority of that time about theater. As I mentioned here, this happened as much by happy accident as by aspiration, but in any case I'm very grateful to have been able to spend the hours and years I have reporting on and contemplating the lively arts.

As the Internet has radically changed the economics of the journalism racket, I've fretted and argued about new models, trying to keep an open mind about the unfolding future, trying not to take for granted anything, not even my own shifting place in the arts-journalism ecosystem. As jobs have dwindled—and since I didn't get the one I really wanted—I've gulped hard and held on tight to my contacts and tried to keep my wits about me. As a result, I make a living at it; I have health insurance and do my bit for a small family; I have a certain degree of freedom, and still a lot of fun, at this racket.

What I didn't realize I was taking for granted, and I guess it was staring me right in the face, was the intrinsic value of criticism itself. I've been in lots of bitch sessions with fellow critics about what we do and why, about how little we receive in compensation or respect; I've engaged in plenty of back-and-forths with theater makers and press reps and concerned theatergoers about the relative value of criticism, and about their self-contradicting frustrations with it—that on the one hand critics have no power as advocates and on the other that critics have too much power as, well, critics (in the negative sense).

But in none of these overlapping discussions of criticism and its relationship to artists and audiences has anyone had the temerity or common sense to ask the obvious, impertinent, terrifying question: Who reads criticism anyway? And then, the corollary question, given the answer to the first (a precious few people): So why do it at all? Why not—in an age when Web publishers (which is to say, the only publishers there will be soon enough) can monitor exactly which content draws the most readers, and which doesn't—cut our losses? What and who are theater reviews for?

This, at least, seems to be what the executive editor of Backstage, a magazine for which I worked as the West Coast editor in chief for 10 years, was thinking when he composed this memo to his theater critics recently:
An analysis of metric data by our executive team led to the conclusion that too few readers are engaging our reviews for Backstage to continue to invest resources in producing them. We will be shifting those resources primarily to the creation of additional advice, news, and features content.
Let that sink in: Backstage, a 53-year-old industry trade publication with the word "stage" in it, will no longer employ critics and no longer print reviews of theater, either on paper or in its inevitable online-only incarnation (within the year, sources tell me). This is a magazine that, for much of the time I've known it (and this includes its 1998 absorption of L.A.'s mom-and-pop actors' trade Drama-Logue, precisely midway through my time there), was uniquely committed, in both its New York and LA markets, to reviewing more theater productions than any other (weeklies on both coast have come close, and in recent years online publications like TheaterMania have had a similar try-to-cover-everything ethos). So this would seem to be a huge blow.

But to whom?

This is my cue to rage self-righteously against the philistinism of the masses, the blindness and cynicism of publishers, the tyranny of the click, the A.D.D. zombie that is Buzzfeeding on our brains, etc. Instead, since the news came down on Friday evening, I've been in a soul-sick, and soul-searching, mood. Backstage's decision may be—almost certainly is—a short-sighted, deck-chairs-on-the-Titanic move, rather than a bold, forward-looking, Web-savvy innovation. But I don't imagine that the folks who made this decision are in a special class of boobs or villains, and the notion of letting audience metrics guide coverage priorities is, alas, not their exclusive invention. This radical step, it seems to me, may be the real canary in the arts-journalism coal mine.

And if I'm honest with myself, am I surprised that the vast majority of reviews of tiny shows, and even many of the reviews of big shows that now turn up in every corner of the Internet, are meagerly read at best? No. And I'm starting to wonder whether the rot goes deeper than the stock observation about theater's marginalization from the mass-culture mainstream, a marketplace where it will never be able to compete for clicks with TV, film, games, books, and popular music. I'm by now well used, and happily reconciled, to theater's intrinsic liveness and hence relative niche position in the culture. But it seems to me that the readership for theater reviews is not even in healthy proportion to theater attendance; of the hundreds and thousands of people who attend the average play, how many will have read a review of that show, let alone more than one?

No, the problem, I'm starting to feel, may have less to do with the changing habits of the reading audience than with the widget-like form criticism typically takes, and the weak, out-of-context critical writing it produces. I'd love to see what the metrics are for reviews in all media, but it seems to me that there's something rote, lazily dutiful about the format of most review sections: a few-hundred-word commentary about a new film or book or play or record, another about another, and so on. Is there a way, instead, that criticism in the 21st-century could/should be more about building and following critics' individual voices and affinities, and less about building up glorified listing sections? Or, if audiences want to browse listings, why not leave that to aggregators like L.A.'s Bitter Lemons or New York's StageGrade, where the lines between print critics, bloggers, and community reviews are already blurring?

Maybe I'm overreacting and overreaching here. I just happened to recently read Brian Kellow's excellent biography of supercritic Pauline Kael, absorbed the death of beloved film buff Robert Ebert, and took in Nora Ephron's infotaining Broadway play Lucky Guy, which glamorizes the rough-and-tumble world of New York City tabloids in the 1980s and '90s, and maybe these outsized media figures of recent yore are over-coloring my thinking. But I do feel like a return to critics-as-tastemakers, as larger-than-life personalities, as polymaths and advocates and pugilists—in short, as infotainers in their own right—may be the only thing that can save the form from a slow death by anemic metrics. And while I can't help feeling a little excited by the notion, personally, the unavoidable catch is that this would demand a lot more enterprise and judgment, and probably pay less, than just waiting for assignments from a theater editor to cover discrete shows. For all its demands, though, I'd imagine this approach has the potential also to give back more, not only to critics, who would benefit from having a wider purview, but also to theater audiences, who don't just need but I think actually want to be guided, challenged, stimulated as much by criticism as by the theater they see.

As I said last week, I'm now officially less worried about the future of theater than about the future of arts journalism. But the continued thriving of theater, and the shrinking of arts-journalism institutions, means that the vacuum of leadership in the opinion leader/pundit space gets wider by the day.

Who will rush in to fill it?


Alison Croggon said...

Blowing my own trumpet here: but Theatre Notes might be a model of the kind of criticism you're talking about. It was a blog that explicitly took theatre seriously as a contemporary artform. As a critic, I saw myself as a part of the community of people who attended and made theatre in Australia, although, like that community, its focus was international as well as local. TN was primarily a critical blog, focused on analysis and response, and consciously refused the consumer-guide model of reviewing; I attempted to place theatre in its cultural, political and social contexts, and sought to open discussion about theatre in all sorts of ways, exploiting the dialogic nature of the internet. It attracted a loyal readership. Even though I closed it last December after eight years, leaving it as an archive, TN is still getting between 800-1000 visits a day. Not a lot by stellar internet standards, but not to sneezed at, given its niche audience. And yes, I closed it, but that's another story...

kristajomiller said...

I find reviews immensely helpful. I live in the middle of the US, so most of the reviews I read are for productions I won't see. But I learn a lot about what works and doesn't work in productions through the critical matter; I learn about what's happening currently in theatre through the descriptive matter. For those of us whose access to quality theatre is limited by geography, reviews are a valuable resource.

Barry Johnson said...

I like the way you're thinking about this problem. I'm not sure mainstream media review writing as it is practiced now is worth saving. Adapt or die? The overseers of those sites and publications have voted for the latter, and it's hard to blame them, for the reasons you offer.

Is there demand for longer form, more writerly and ambitious, writing about locally produced arts? I certainly hope so, but I wish I had more evidence. Those essays are hard to write, and at this point writing them is an almost entirely speculative enterprise. Even more difficult: Integrating the full internet arsenal into a longer response (audio, video, social media, graphics, etc.).

One thing that would help? If the writers themselves talked about the reviews/essays of their peers... What forms, approaches, voices seem to be working? Which ones give us pleasure, incite us to action, lead us to thoughts we wouldn't have had otherwise, expand our knowledge? We need to criticize criticism, reflect on our own work, try something new...

Anonymous said...

I think the core problem is the generally poor quality of critical writing generally. Perhaps online publishing, which allows for more space and in depth writing, will help. I observe that generally those doing the criicism are often much less trained, less prepared, and generally less competant than those who are doing the theater. Perhaps every review online could ask for alternate opinions or comments like this, which would help to bring out more facets of a production. When an exceptioal critical voice (like new howlround critic Aleandra Bonifield) comes along, the writing and insights are so much more illuminationg and insightful than the average review that it shows what is generally lacking. If those doing the criticism would engage the Artistic Director or director of a production, or engage an actor in a significant role, a much more informed discussion might occur. This would be a major change and, I think possibly, a significant step forward in making the writing of theatrical criticism vibrant, engaging and relevant again.