Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Are Critics and Bloggers on the Same Side?

Doug Lucie & Others on Print v Online

Ten years on from the tech bubble and the Internet is turning out to be not quite the transformational flattener as wildly forecast. Taking the historical view its impact, outside certain sectors, is looking rather less, say, than the invention of tarmac. But media and music- and retail to a lesser extent- have been turned upside down. At their peak of employment two thousand cartoonists worked full-time in the American newspaper industry. The number now is forty.

The wholesale dismissal of its entire arts staff by the Independent on Sunday prompted a Guardian article, not the first, on 22nd August “Are critics and bloggers on the same side?” It prompted an enlivened brace of responses, characterised by a great deal more sense and seriousness than the usual knee-jerk, oft flippant and bile-filled flood that is a norm of reader feedback. Good though it was, it passed on one important point.

The twenty-five comments included, rightly, a complaint about bloggery’s descent to “unargued opinion”. A fiery playwright, a good one as it happens, posting as "Riverman" fulminated against “a coterie of theatre studies graduates bigging each other, and their favourite writers.”

A third comment made welcome to the sheer efflorescence “the more critics the better - online and in print - because then there's a chance that the law of averages will enable the good work to emerge through the clamour.”

The occasion was the Edinburgh Fringe, bigger than ever in 2013, and the retreat of the professional press. Lyn Gardner used to reckon on six shows a day for three weeks but the number of shows reviewed by the heavyweight press is a shadow of what it once was. The footwork is now done by the amateurs for “Broadway Baby” and all the other daily freebies and updates.

The newspaper buyer might be entitled to read “print is hugely constricted by space” with a small degree of scepticism. Arts editors seem to have no problem in finding space for features, extras and background material, few of which appear untouched by the PR industry.

Sour, broad-brush dismissals are inevitable: “criticism is essentially parastical” and critics “should be hated as much as bankers and politicians”. The Internet does attract small and hateful minds. The last of the contributions, however, mingles respect for the genre with a soberness of experience.

First: “Arts journalism is, when done well, an art in itself but an art with a very valuable purpose beyond the aesthetic for it allows those of us with experience and knowledge to scream to the high heavens about which shows and performers the public should be seeing (or avoiding) and - most importantly - why.”

But the writer continues with a dose of reality “going by my inbox, it seems that many Fringe performers (comedy, theatre, music etc) see a reviewer as little more than a meat puppet to sit there and hand out stars. They don't seem to want a critic. Just turn up, give us something we can stick on our flyers as free promotion and be on your way…The standard of criticism across the Fringe has dived in the last few years across all categories. And not just in the blogs/websites. Both the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph need to look hard at themselves if they feel they like championing quality criticism in the future and the Guardian and Independent's blinkered approach to the Fringe is not something to be proud of.”

There is the familiar complaint of the bloggerati- “appear to be very similar to each other, London centric, middle class etc. and, here, you'd hope that the more democratic nature of blogs would have made a difference, yet it seems to be enhancing the status quo”. It was always thus. Go to almost any queue outside any show and it is stuffed with Londoners, but that is statistically likely. There are a lot of them, and London is a young person’s city and an unrivalled magnet for all artists.

One response to the quality of uneven commentary is “I think all reviewers need accreditation...a simple outline of background, training and experience.” In fact, they do, or at least did. The Fringe Press Office used to request an example of the writing and confirmation from an editor. But, even if a hard-pressed Fringe Office applied a lot of rigour in issuing press passes, there is nothing to prevent anyone with a ticket sounding off. As for training there ain’t none. See a lot of performance, read the reviewers you like, and hook onto a mentoring scheme if one is available.

All arguments depend on dichotomy. One writer pulls the rug out from under the basic distinction. “Agree with lots of this Lyn, but I think you draw the line in the sand between critics and bloggers in the wrong place.” He cites two examples of “online magazines/publications with an editorial direction and a staff, however virtual or unpaid. I can't see any real difference between them and say what Time Out do [sic] with their [sic] pool of writers who also review for other publications, beyond the fact that they are only digital.”

The article and its follow-on discussion omit one point of importance. Critics are writers, with all that the term entails and implies. A reader may or may not agree with Riverman, the playwright, but he sure can put his view across with a bit of writerly pizzazz. For him “the terms of this debate are so self-referential and solipsistic that I'm a bit angry. There will be some perceptive people out there, and there will be some careerist numbnuts - same as it ever was. But this flood of university theatre studies wannabes taking advantage of technological advances to create a personal social media profile does theatre no favours. In fact, it's nothing to do with the theatre. It's about creating yet another tier of middle-class economic activity that will ensure that everything makes money for the right people.”

Doug Lucie (Riverman) is right in one respect. One broadsheet conglomerate will give a critics’ job to any journo who happens to be on the staff and last week was nattering on about colonic therapy or where Gwinnie spent her summer holiday.

All fruitful human activity is collaborative. A contributor rightly says of the blogo-reviewers “they would benefit from a little brevity and a lot less in the way of exposition”. Almost everything posted online would be better and sharper, if shorter. But it is an uncommon writer who is also his own best editor.

Lastly, it is not just that the critical reader seeks out the voice that speaks in a way that seems good and right to her. The writer also has her pre-supposed reader. That pre-supposed reader- the constructed reader in literary theory- creates the tone and the choice of vocabulary. Philip French saw nine films for the Observer of 25th August. One he did not like at all and summed up its apparent dishonesty of approach with a line “has it both ways by telling her story as a raunchy Rashomon.” That last word has a compressed meaning that works and fits with brilliance. But it is also predicated on a particular level of knowledge on the part of the reader.

Another example, back at the Edinburgh Fringe, is provided by the visit of Exeunt magazine to the streaming of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning.” Capital letters are dropped, adjectives are substituted for adverbs, the proportion of space given to the actual work is low. The experience of watching theatre via a static camera is kicked off with a question. “And if collective effervescence is, as Durkheim persuaded us, the live flame that theatre keeps to form the basis of society, how is this not dimmed across invisibly networked planes of grey screens?”

This writing too presupposes a particular species of reader. Riverman has a point.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
03 September 2013


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