Saturday, December 15, 2007

Thoughts on Aaron Riccio's Thoughts on Theatrical Criticism

Aaron Riccio put a post up last Sunday on the ethics of critics changing their minds -- whether, in an age of blogposts that are easily published or unpublished, it is ethical to modify a review if a critic should experience a major change of heart. Aaron writes:

We've allowed John Simon to change his mind entirely about Sondheim over the course of 40 years (though the plays themselves haven't changed, only the times), so why not compress that and allow -- nay, expect -- that critics give themselves the room, even if only on the Internet to self-correct? Wouldn't that be an excellent use of blogging? The PR firms would still have their blurbs, and if the internet really is as shabby a tool as they think, any later corrections wouldn't really change those (not like the pull quotes are always honest, either).

Well, I have to digress a bit and say I'm not sure we've "allowed" John Simon to do anything, really, except degrade and terrorize theatre artists through the use of gorgeously styled prose for 40 years. Still -- and more to Aaron's point -- it's hard for me to imagine a blogger going back in 40 hours, much less 40 years, and changing the essential gist of a post. Were lightning to strike and a critic to experience a change of heart, it seems to me that writing a new post, one that might consider the ideas in the original post and explain how the change of heart occurred, what drove it, what inspired it, would be more instructive for the reader -- and for the critic, too.

I agree, meanwhile, that the great thing about the Web is having the ability to ameliorate grammar and spelling, or to use the form's real-time capabilities to engage readers -- letting ticket-buyers comment on critics' views, for example.

True, there's lots of this already -- in traditional media as well as, of course, the blogosphere. But there's actually another reason I mention this particular use of the Web. Before I reviewed The Homecoming the other night, I went into the New York Times archive and reread Walter Kerr's review of the play. If I may, I want to just share one of Kerr's most inert, obnoxious, eye-popping ledes:

Harold Pinter's "The Homecoming" consists of a single situation that the author refuses to dramatize until he has dragged us all, aching, through a half-drugged dream.

Yikes, guess he didn't like it.

Anyway, as I was researching, I noticed that the Times used to encourage people to write in with their criticisms of the critic's criticisms and would publish it -- I'm talking voluminously. And much of it was quite literate. Sure, the Times still publishes letters, obviously, but they're never long enough to indulge in the kind of deep engagement found in the pages of the Times 40 years ago -- ditto the comments one can sometimes post on the Times' website.

Well, that's what a blog can really do: forcibly insert the critic into a conversation.

Back to the question. To me, it seems that entirely changing the substance of a review -- that is, doing a true 180 -- leaves the critic vulnerable to charges of intellectual dishonesty. If you're a person who likes to attack Hillary Clinton as someone who arrives at her political views by wagging her finger in the wind, it's easy to imagine someone accusing a critic of doing the same thing, say, after reading what his or her colleagues think of a particular play.

Mind you, I'm not saying such an accusation would be fair. I'm just saying it could be made.

Which actually raises one other thought. Personally, I don't believe critics who say they don't read each other's work or discuss what they think. I think a fair number do -- probably well after the reviews are all out, or as it strikes their fancy.

And I do think it's a good thing in the long run if a critic is open enough to other views that their own thinking might evolve over time -- so we're back to Aaron's John Simon example.

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1 comment:

Aaron Riccio said...

To be fair, I tried to specify the extent to which I thought it would be fair for a critic to alter their blog -- namely that a 180 would totally bankrupt any authority the blogger had as a critic. (They'd be whimsical or, worse, a flip-flopper.)

The example I used was No Dice, for which my solution was to link additional comments to my unaltered review in the hope of better conveying my enthusiasm, which is, more or less what you're saying that "a blog can really do: forcibly insert the critic into conversation," even if, in this case, I made up my own conversation for the show.

Ultimately, what I'm really gunning for is to see the critic as more of an advocate: not simply reviewing a show, but defending the ones he feels very strongly for (and why shouldn't a critic dialogue with other critics or riposte openly and electronically?), or actively reminding audiences of which shows are well-worth seeing (of course leaving the door open for that audience to talk back, too).

It's really all about conversation; and I'm glad to see that you've decided to add your thoughts on criticism -- I especially like #3.