Friday, April 18, 1997

The Obligations of the Critic

This is a the script of a speech prepared by Luke Clancy for the Greeting the Critic Conference, UCD, and therefore written to be spoken.

"Critic" is an ugly word, criticism an ugly job. But there are, of course, far uglier words and far uglier jobs. "Reviewer" for instance and even reviewing. A reviewer is, from some points of view, a far more dangerous -- or more irritating, depending on which side of the pit you stand -- person than a critic. This is because reviewers will generally have to make judgements quickly, putting them in danger of being hasty; and they will traditionally (for various reasons I'll come to later) have to be clear cut, which means they may risk rounding off too many corners.

Most importantly, reviewers are in the habit of telling you that something is happening. Or, as a slight refinement of terms, if reviewers tell you that something is happening now, critics tell you that something has been happening recently, and may, possibly, indicate some other things happened before but we didn't notice. (The distinction breaks down at points, but that is just the sort of thing that distinctions do.)

Telling you that something is happening may sound like a straightforward job. It is. For a proportion of readers, it is the reviewer's primary obligation. At this point, the needs of the producers and the audience are close to identical, but from here on in, things get tricky.

After this simple notice, reviewers, if they are not extremely careful, end up telling you whether they think a production is any good. This, of course, is a snare that critics can usually avoid) And here is where the needs of producers and readers, that is potential audiences, can slip out of register. By no means coincidentally, this is also often the moment when the important aspects of the context of the review become visible. Reviews are, after all, written and read under the very specific circumstances involved in running a newspaper

As a gross but useful generality, newspaper would like to position themselves as unveilers of hypocrisy, challengers and invigelators of power. But they are severely limited in terms of the efficiency with which they can perform these functions. Because newspapers rely on both readers and advertisers to remain commercially viable, they will invariably restrain their challenge to power within the limits of conflict which might cause either group (or an economically significant proportion of either group) to become alienated.

Obviously, this is a rough image of what goes on, one that is susceptible to blips. Nevertheless, the end result is the creation of a mechanism that effectively keeps commercial media (including newspapers and their contributors) from performing the roleon which their existence is predicated. A newspaper's version of reality is a complex network of concerns with little room for absolutes. This should not come as a surprise: the aim of publishing a newspaper, in the end, is not to change the world, but to create a branded information product with specific appeal to a carefully targeted audience. The issue is, thankfully, further complicated by the occasional application of free will among writers. More of which in a moment.

Newspaper reviewing is intimately bound up in the business of selling (of selling newspapers and tickets, as well as selling practitioners to funding organisations). Reviewers are obliged to work themselves free constantly. (Criticism written outside the newspaper context is also to some extent bound up in the business of selling. It has the advantage, however, of having much more time to cover up its trail. Which is a bad and even boring thing.)

Free will here amounts to the freedom not to do certain things; and this is where the reviewers' obligation to their audiences comes in. In this context, the reviewers' most important task is to always, always, always to keep in mind that they have no obligation to work to turn readers into audiences, but equally, that to discourage readers from having their own encounters with a work -- any work -- would be a complete failure.

Reviewers have no business stoking up the automobile industry. Reviewers are under an obligation not to waste their readers time, -- and insult their intelligence -- by using the words "must see" or any variations thereon. The presence of any exhortationof this kind is evidence only of a wish to provide copy for those who will be laying out advertisements in the coming days and weeks. This is a sin.

As I've said, it should be as unthinkable that a reviewer exhort readers to go to a play, as it would be for them to say that a play must not, on any account, be seen. Some production may be bad enough to be interesting, though this is rare...Besides, the presence of these tags in a review might only lead a reader to wonder what factors outside of the production could have lead to this verdict. Encouraging readers' thoughts to go wandering off in that direction -- in the direction of the delicately balanced forces that produce their newspaper -- should be a mistake.

Reviewers do not have the job of offering specific financial advice to their readers. Since reviewers, almost without exception, do not pay for their tickets, it would require an impossible feat of imagination to know whether an evening represents precise value for money; or finding exact monetary equivalents for experiences. That's what the Arts Council is there for. (That not to say that an opinion on an overall budget for an area is inappropriate, but simply that zooming in on whether to see The Weeping of Angels represents good value. For any number of good reasons, theatre reviews do not tend to end, like say. Wine of the Month recommendations, with an assessment of the. price/quality ratio. Maybe later on this afternoon, we'll find out if anybody wants them to...)

Reviewers may usefully a number of things:
  • They can present a set of judgements. (Which hopefully will extend beyond assessing whether catharsis has taken place)
  • They can suggest some of the conceptual material involved in the play.
  • They can suggest a view of the work's context. (That is attempt to bind bits and pieces of a production into an on-going conversation on theatre)
  • They may even -- in extreme cases -- give some indications of their own, blissfully subjective, experience of the performance.
In doing any or all of these, their primary responsibility is to their readers. If any of these communicate any sense of excitement, pleasure, importance -- or even just the absence of boredom -- readers may choose to turn themselves into audiences. But the reviewer's obligations should be dispatched well in advance of this. The importance of any sense of value communicated in a review never lies in whether or not readers choose to see the show. Building audiences is a practitioner's job.