Is criticism worth valuing?

WHAT distinguishes a professional theatre critic from an amateur? It’s a question that’s been buzzing around ever since some theatregoer realised the internet would be a pretty cool place to write about the shows they’d been seeing. Perhaps that person was doing something different from the critics who’d been filing newspaper reviews for the previous couple of centuries, but if so, in what way was it different? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Mark Shenton, critic on the Stage, had a stab at it earlier this week when he blogged about the online chatter that precedes productions when they move from town to town. In a post entitled Rising above the noise of internet commentary, he made a distinction between what he called “formal criticism” and an internet where “there are always lots of voices, shouting to be heard”:

The world needs voices to rise above that clamour and offer some kind of calming, unruffled perspective. Online commentary tends to polarise between extremely good and extremely bad; critics can provide a more measured voice.

As he then went on to talk about print publications, his implication (intentional or otherwise) was that this “formal criticism” took place in the traditional media while the “unmediated din” took place online. 

This strikes me as a contentious thing to say, not least because his opinion was itself expressed online. What qualifies as formal criticism? What is the mechanism by which some voices rise above the clamour instead of adding to the din themselves? Did he mean there were no measured voices online?

It sounded like Shenton was out to provoke a debate and when I said as much on Twitter, he responded:

So maybe I was getting the wrong end of the stick, even though Shenton’s post continues in much the same way, suggesting that “online no one seems to have grown up” (how?) and that there are “online vultures … circling overhead ready to feast on the latest theatrical carcass”. How this is different to theatrical gossip of old, he does not say. 

Neither does he say whether Megan Vaughan’s blog comments about, which he quotes apparently approvingly, are an example of the polarised online commentary he dislikes or the “calming, unruffled perspective” he craves.

There’s good reason for the ambiguity. The problem with the anti-internet argument is in the supporting evidence. There are too many examples of brilliant online criticism and poor quality print reviewing to make anything but the woolliest of generalisations. There simply isn’t the statistical evidence to suggest that one form of publication is either more polarised or more measured than the other. In fact, right now, if you wanted to find the kind of thoughtful in-depth commentary once the province of specialist theatrical journals, you would almost certainly go online.

This is not to say, however, that Shenton’s fears are without foundation. As a professional critic myself, I have much sympathy for his championing of “a properly edited publication offering vetted, commissioned reviewing”. That seems to me to be the most secure way of ensuring long-term standards and helping one generation learn from the last.

I’ve also got a lot of time for the views expressed by Wendy Rosenfield a couple of weeks ago in a Broad Street Review article asking Does a review that no one paid for have value? The de-professionalisation of theatre criticism, she argued, risked undermining the whole business:

in the macro sense, something tangible does get lost: credibility, for the person and the profession. By literally devaluing critics’ work, or through ignorance arising out of the far-flung and isolated nature of online writing, a profession becomes a hobby. If no one is paying you for what you’re creating, whether in a knitting circle or on the Huffington Post, who’s to say you’re doing it wrong? 

I recommend spending time reading not only her article and the fascinating commentary beneath it, but also Christopher Munden’s response under the title Does an analysis by a privileged journalist have value? in which he challenges Rosenfield’s claim to the ethical high ground. Again, there are many lucidly expressed opinions on both sides of the argument beneath his piece. It’s quality stuff. 

If this is internet noise give me more of it.

I won’t rehearse all of those arguments again here, but I will offer one other way of thinking about the question. If we can’t agree over what’s in the best interests of journalism, perhaps we can find common ground over what’s in the best interests of theatre. On the one hand, the more people who are engaging in discussion, whether as writers or readers, the better it is for the theatre industry. It strikes me as self-evident that every text, every social media comment, every blog review, makes theatre seem a thing worth talking about and a thing worth seeing.

On the other hand, there is a widely accepted belief that professionalisation benefits everyone. We assume playwrights, actors, press officers, directors, designers and all the rest will be paid. We also assume plumbers, heating engineers, caterers and electrical suppliers who maintain the theatre building will be properly remunerated. We assume this because it is fair to pay people for their labour and because it guarantees a professional attitude to the job. 

Is there a case to think of theatre criticism in a different way? I’m biased, but I don’t think there is. If the activity has value, shouldn’t we be doing what we can to ensure that value is maintained? We needn’t distract ourselves with arguments about noisiness or ethics – that ground is too shaky; instead, we can make the case that valuable labour deserves to be paid for. I’ve talked about some of the ways that may happen in previous blogs such as Should theatres employ theatre critics?, but for now let’s leave with a couple of thoughts from Australian critic Jane Howard:

2 Replies to “Is criticism worth valuing?”

  1. "If we can't agree over what's in the best interests of journalism, perhaps we can find common ground over what's in the best interests of theatre." Yes and no.

    The "no" is that that proposition presupposes that the best interests of theatre are the business, even the duty, of those who write about it. Part of the foundation for the critical detachment Mark Shenton speaks about arises from the fact that professional (in the sense of paid for by others) reviewers aren't citizens of the world of theatre. We may care passionately about it – i.e. those best interests may be a major concern of ours – but our *duty*, our *function*, is to communicate with our readers/listeners etc; we're citizens of the world of journalism or of academia, not of theatre.

    This is partly why, a few years ago when the International association of Theatre Critics proposed a Code of Practice, the British section twice rejected it by hefty majorities in open votes: the whole Code was phrased in ways which made reviewers subject to theatre and presupposed that our primary attitude should be gratitude for the work we were considering, regardless of its nature or quality.

    What online self-publication has done, concomitant with removing formal definitions of professionalism, is to dissipate that sense of detachment, of being outward- rather than inward-facing as regards theatre. It's somewhat cynical to say that if we rely directly on theatres/companies for freebies to the shows we review, rather than operating within the structure of a larger media outlet with a pre-existing and ongoing relationship, then we're likely to do less to upset our own personal standing with those theatres or companies, at least until we attain a certain standing in our own right.

    Around the turn of the century, I was looking forward to the ways in which the democratisation of the Net would do away with antiquated, top-down models of writerly authority. However, it very quickly became apparent that no new, bottom-up structures were coming together in their place; even the more respected online theatre writing tends to be coterie work, part of a mutually supportive community without breaking out to a broader audience.

    The very word "authority" sounds constrictive and… well, authoritarian. But the concept of conferred standing and credibility which are more or less widely recognised is what's at the root of matters here, and what I think both Mark S. and you, Mark F., are pondering.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Good point. Yes, my question was just an attempt to think about the problem from a different perspective – it doesn't necessarily imply that theatre should be calling the shots. However, even in the short time since the uproar over the IATC code of practice, I would say there is less certainty that old media companies will continue to be our paymasters. As Mark Shenton's article points out, the Sunday Telegraph and the Independent on Sunday seem to have abandoned criticism – and they're not the only ones. It could be that we have no choice but to seek other ways of working and that could involve a different relationship with readers and theatre which, in turn, would raise different aesthetic, existential and ethical questions.

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