Written for The Collective Review, 13 August 2009
Congratulations on writing the first four star review in history without a single positive adjective! Utterly unquotable, but I do appreciate the stars : )
Baba Brinkman, commenting on MattBoothman.com
So Baba Brinkman isn’t satisfied with four stars, or with the accompanying review – which was, by the way, 50 per cent longer than my editor at the British Theatre Guide recommends for a Festival Fringe review, because I didn’t feel I could do The Rap Guide to Evolution justice in a smaller space, and thankfully online journalism is flexible like that. No, Baba Brinkman wants some positive adjectives to paste over his posters and flyers.
If this is starting to sound petulant (already), well, that’s kind of how I feel; now, anyway. When I first picked up Brinkman’s comment on my blog, my (very British) first instinct was to apologise. I genuinely enjoyed The Rap Guide, and I felt sorry that Brinkman didn’t feel my positive notice – which praised his showmanship and moral/social objectives, though unfortunately not in easily digestible soundbyte form – had done enough to help him out. After an afternoon and an evening to stew on it, I’m now oscillating instead between deflated and plain old pissed. After all, it’s not my job to market his show for him.
Or is it?
Yes, this incident seems like as good an excuse as any to open the ancient, slightly rusted and diseased can of worms that is the what-is-the-point-of-critics-and-criticism debate. Because if it were up to me I wouldn’t have awarded the show a star rating at all (star ratings excuse lazy reading, which facilitates lazy journalism, which encourages lazy reading etc. etc.) and that’s the only bit of the review that Brinkman had no problem with. So does that make me one of those twisted, bitter critics people talk about, who are so far removed from the art they supposedly serve that once the notice is published the show can crash and burn for all they care?
No. I’m not British enough to do myself down quite that much. No, I think the crux of the issue isn’t that different parties have different concepts of the purpose of criticism; it’s more that different parties need criticism to serve different functions, which is a crucial distinction.
Performers need reviews to publicise their show. Sometimes it doesn’t matter whether the review is good or bad, as long as it increases the show’s visibility; other times, a rave is essential to put bums on seats.
Critics like to think that performers need reviews to revise their show, because this makes us feel like part of the creative process, rather than its terminus. In practice, the audience’s response on the night has a far greater impact on future iterations of the show than a reviewer’s opinion.
We also like to think that readers need reviews to understand the show (the ‘critic as decoder’ argument), or to stand in for the experience of shows they missed (the ‘reviews are letters to posterity’ argument). Whereas readers will mostly scan the reviews section either to get an indication of what they might enjoy (‘critic as consumer guide’) or to read entertaining slams; a one star review draws the eye more strongly than a five star, which is just one more reason the arbitrary shortcircuiting little buggers ought to be abolished.
And when we aren’t too busy enjoying thinking about what performers and readers need our reviews to be, critics need reviews to be challenging and fulfilling to write, to exercise our creative and analytical muscles. In an ideal world, a review that fulfils these, the writer’s needs, will naturally fulfil the readers’ and performers’ needs at the same time. But clearly this isn’t always the case; and the bald truth is, if a review doesn’t serve an editor’s needs – to sell papers, or generate web traffic, whilst remaining true to the publication’s stated ethics – it’ll never see the light of day, and then it can’t do anyone any good at all.