What is the point of negative criticism?

Can I possibly be correct in assuming that I can write a piece about the state of art criticism today without seriously fearing for the future of my career? As in, should I be prepared for a cut-away to a cigar-chomping & mysteriously Brooklyn-accented Richard Ouzounian slamming the screen of his laptop shut & shouting “Offord’ll never work in this town again!”? Like, what is this? Hollywood of the ’40s?

Except that it’s a real fear & not to be considered lightly (although, it does seem to say a lot about me as a writer that I tend to begin all my posts with some variation of bashful apology).  I don’t want to overstate the power of critics in the theatre community – I’m generally distrustful of those who do – but credit given where credit due & all that. The negotiations of the weird relationship between artist & critic have always been murky & at worst openly hostile. Where terms are good, the artist risks accusations of “selling-out,” & the critic of favouritism. But if the worth or merit of a play can be discussed in critical terms, surely what’s good for the goose is good for the whatever, no? After all, though I’ve taken issue with particular modes of criticism & feel little compunction in calling out individuals by name, I can’t possibly be accused of “attacking” anyone, exactly, can I? I have no interest in writing broadsides, & the code-of-conduct to which I enjoin my blog’s comment-section (to little avail, unfortunately) is the same for my posts: snark is fine.  Who doesn’t like a good snarkfest? But rudeness, vindictiveness, & general derision: not for me, thanks. I leave that stuff to the pros.

I hate always feeling reactive in this blog, but I can’t really blame anyone for that. My thumb is not, I suppose, as firmly on the pulse of the theatre world as I would like it to be. As it is, this essay comes in lieu of a recent trend among critics, which is to ask themselves, essentially, “Should critics write bad reviews?” This happens to be a very deep rabbit hole. One might as well ask, “What is the point of criticism”?

But, yeah – what is the point of criticism?

Or rather, what, actually, is criticism?

What is a critic?

I should say first that though I do write about theatre (& the occasional political rant), I don’t consider myself a critic – as a rule, I don’t write about individual productions or other artists, ever, unless it’s a friendly Tweet or in the context of some much larger extra-theatrical phenomenon. I certainly don’t indulge in evaluative criticism or reviews; my interest is in aesthetics – how theatre works – & so far I’ve been able to discuss that without overmuch digression into the bad play-good play continuum.

I should say secondly that the weird bifurcations of professional critics & amateurs, bloggers & newspaper(wo)men, is unhelpful & reductive. Critics are thinkers & writers, & one’s status as a “professional” certainly is not pursuant to the size of one’s salary. Egad, if such standards were applied to theatre, the number of “professional artists” would shrink dramatically, so to speak. A voice is a voice, whether a whisper or shout.

In recognition of this fact, Brock University was thoughtful enough to host a colloquium on “The Changing Face of Theatre Criticism in the Digital Age.” In one panel, The Globe and Mail‘s Kelly Nestruck, the Toronto Star‘s Richard Ouzounian, Feminist Spectator‘s Prof. Jill Dolan, & Dispositio‘s Prof. Holger Syme met to discuss…well, many things. You can watch the video at the link above, but I found the most interesting (& most briefly covered) topic to be the fundamental difference between the kinds of criticism Profs. Syme & Dolan write, & the kind of stuff that appears in most daily newspapers. The sheer fact that a newspaper can’t print a 2000-word essay on a particular show necessarily means that the level of discourse is going to be substantively different; when one is constrained to 750 words or even fewer, the reviews become, as Syme observed, evaluative. They lose any discursive investigation of how or why something on staged worked or didn’t, & become, essentially, caveat emptors. An actor becomes “bad” (or worse, as my earlier post on Ouzounian observed). A production is “boring” or “exciting,” but none of these judgements are meaningfully justified. The ultimate expression of this tendency is the star system (which both Nestruck & Ouzounian remarked on loathing, rightly).

But what wasn’t discussed is the salient question: if a review is going to be more-or-less purely evaluative, what actual merit in cultural terms is there in writing bad reviews? By which I mean: pans, hatchet-jobs, stich-ups; the kinds of devastating reviews which are the stuff of actors’ nightmares & around which sitcom plots revolve. This question is not just mine; Howard Sherman also recently wrote about the impotence & unfairness of a particular kind of review, & in the New York Times last month, Francine Prose & Zoë Heller exchanged essays justifying the pan.

From Prose:

 Life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love. And writing a bad book didn’t seem like a crime deserving the sort of punitive public humiliation (witch-dunking, pillorying) that our Puritan forefathers so spiritedly administered.

But now she’s back to writing them because:

For me, writing a negative review feels like being the child in…“The Emperor’s New Clothes.”…[T]he child cries out that the emperor is naked…but the procession continues anyway…This might cast some doubt on the efficacy — the point — of the negative review, but it also casts some light on the child in the story, who isn’t necessarily trying to expose the dishonest weavers or the hypocritical courtiers or oblige the emperor to get dressed. He just can’t help telling what he believes is the truth.

& from Heller:

…[writers] accept with varying degrees of resignation that they are not kindergartners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena. I know of no self-respecting authors who would ask to be given points for “effort”.

…[B]anning “negativity” is not just bad for the culture; it is unfair to authors.

I think it’s probably possible to instigate critical discourse without writing things like, say, this, but that’s neither here nor there. What’s interesting to note is that neither Ms. Prose nor Ms. Heller claim that they write bad reviews to dissuade potential readers. They do not appear to see themselves as arbiters of taste in the way we normally associate with critics.

This is in stark contrast to the overtly activist view Richard Ouzounian took at the Brock panel, where he described his duty by quoting the somewhat overrated Kenneth Tynan: “The role of the critic is to obliterate the bad, to make way for the good.”

Well. That’s one view. Quoting others doesn’t necessarily constitute an argument, but I think it worth noting that at the other end of the spectrum, no less an eminence than Dr. Samuel Johnson (though I’ve also heard it attributed to music critic Peter Yates, so who knows?) once wrote:  “That which cannot be praised should be surrounded by a tasteful, well-thought-out silence.”

One knows what he (whoever he is) means – the position is no less activist, but makes the point that it’s far more powerful for a bad work to remain unread, unseen, & unspoken of than to single it out as an apt target for mockery or derision. The difference between the two modes of criticism is narrow, but deep, & to ask which is the better (or whether there’s a middle ground) necessarily bring us to the question with which I started this post: What is the point of negative criticism?

One of my favorite critics of the Johnson/Yates schools is Michael Silverblatt, who hosts the extraordinary “Bookworm” show on KCRW Radio in Santa Monica, CA. The entire back-catalogue of the show is on the website, & I cannot recommend it more highly as a prime example of what unabashedly intellectual criticism can sound like. Silverblatt’s MO is to play the consummate host; he does not invite writers onto the show without a) having read their entire body of work, & b) genuinely, truly admiring them. In short – he doesn’t critique works he doesn’t like. On a recent episode, Silverblatt interviewed the German book critic Denis Scheck (who’s apparently considered kind of “the German Michael Silverblatt” [or is Silverblatt the American Scheck?]); Scheck is of the Ouzounian school, & believes that negative reviews have an important place in cultural discourse.

What’s interesting is not that they disagreed, but why. Both critics admitted that there were too many bad books being published. They both agreed that focusing only ones that were good (which was sort of what I suggested we do with plays in an earlier post) was to misrepresent the literary scene: a kind of “fantasy.” But whereas Scheck was not interested in fantasy, Silverblatt was, for the crucial reason that literature was dying.

Thus, it isn’t enough to talk about the merits of good or bad reviews without taking into consideration the political & cultural climates in which an art form exists. A negative review of a Hollywood film is going to be of substantively different value – both to the culture at large & in terms of the film’s success -than a negative review of a play. This is because Hollywood is Hollywood – the audience pool is massive, access is easier, & the mechanisms of promotion are more deeply ingrained. One is not surprised to see a movie reviewed on the radio, or to see an ad on the subway. But a play? The truth is, theatre is already a marginalized art form. To quote from the Francine Prose article supra:

The publishing industry, we hear, is in trouble. So why would a sensible writer tell people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin?

This dilemma is precisely the one faced by the theatre community. The theatre, we are told by (for example) CBC’s Ontario Today is “dying“: how then can a critic justify the hatchet-job? Why wouldn’t a critic use her platform to celebrate a production, instead of reminding her readers why they don’t go to the theatre in the first place?

(N.B.: There’s a massive difference, by the way, between being marginalized & “dying.” I hope this doesn’t need to be explained.)

I’m not sure this means, necessarily, that we must assume the radical positivity of Michael Silverblatt. Prof. Jill Dolan recently wrote an essay for Public Imagining on “critical generosity,” an attitude she describes as asking:

Why does a production work? How does it seem to reach its audience? How can we tell that an audience was moved? How do we think about efficacy outside the theater or the performance, even as we propose that something tangibly moving (emotionally and politically) happened within it? In other words, critical generosity doesn’t devolve into nonspecific “It was good” pablum but tries to parse how and why a performance seemed to work in a way that generated a productive kind of political hope through its aesthetic strategies.

Prof. Dolan’s received some flack for this, mostly from readers who accuse her being too “nice” (which, really? huh?), & who apparently didn’t read her whole essay through to the end:

My colleague Alisa Solomon recently suggested that pointing out what doesn’t work in a performance you care about can be as critically generous as describing what does.

Seen this way, blogs like Feminist Spectator & Dispositio really do become exemplars of the proper relationship between criticism & art – these blogs take it for granted that the people involved with the production are talented, that the endeavor is worthwhile, & seem to be operating also under the tacit assumption that their readers have seen, or will see, the play regardless of what they write about it. In other words, the point of the criticism is not to say “Go see this,” or “Don’t see that,” but to emphasize that what is problematic about a play can be equally as interesting & culturally valuable as what is praiseworthy.

Which brings us by a commodius vicus back to where we started – the fundamental difference between the 750-word review, & the blogger’s longer 2000-word critique. Note that this is not meant as a criticism of Nestruck or Ouzounian or Sumi or Kaplan or Crew or whomever. It is an observation of the place of certain institutions within the theatre community, & how they function. NOW Magazine is probably the most pro-theatre of any major Canadian newspaper that I can think of (they actually put theatre artists on the cover!). & it ought to go without saying that a glowing review from Nestruck or Ouzounian can send audiences to particular productions in droves. These are good things.

But if the purpose of criticism is not to “obliterate” works the critic doesn’t like, is not to influence the tastes of the consumer, then how much value is there in writing the standard caveat emptor review? Don’t negative reviews simply contribute to the further marginalization of theatre?

What is the point of this kind of negative criticism?

4 Comments What is the point of negative criticism?

  1. David Stein

    Oh, who cares? Grow up. I was a professional actor for decades, taught a a shitty little university on the shores of Lake Superior, did some CBC Radio reviews, but I haven’t gone to a play in years. Canadian directors stink, and well deserve Ouzounian. I worked for him, incidentally, and he does not, by any stretch, have a “Brooklyn” accent.

    1. AlexanderAlexander

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your thoughtful and intelligent comments. Clearly my humor was a bit on the subtle side, for you. Not sure why someone who “hasn’t gone to a play in years” feels qualified to say “Canadian directors stink,” but then, you’ve taught at a “shitty little university” so obviously you’re someone worth paying attention to.


  2. Ian Shuttleworth

    It’s a well-argued and genuinely questing perspective, but it rests on a fundamental fallacy, namely that the reviewer is a citizen of the world of theatre and owes some kind of civic duty to their creative compatriots. It simply ain’t so.

    Reviewers are “citizens”, as it were, of journalism or academia, and/or of the Net, and their duty in each case is to their audience.

    Which, to an extent, brings us back to doh with the question “But what does that audience WANT?” Well, as I often say regarding this question, do the math: consider what a small proportion of your audience is even going to be in a position to see the show in question, and the matter of influence immediately becomes a sideshow. Our job is to inform our readers/listeners/etc. what a production is like, so that if they *are* in such a position they might make a more informed choice but also simply so that they come away from our work better informed than they came to it.

    Although academic and journalistic criticism differ somewhat in this regard, it’s still fair to say that ultimately, you can’t infer any more specific goal than that.

    To eschew negative criticism is, then, to deny one’s audience the possibility (dare I say “the right”?) to be thus informed about the, by definition (do the math again), half or so of all productions which are of less than average quality. And that’s without even questioning what constitutes negative criticism: sometimes, for the theatre-maker too, the most constructive thing one can say is, “Put the play down now and back away from it with all deliberate speed.” But that, too, takes us back to square one, in that that candour is inimical to a sense of the reviewer being an obligated member of the theatre community. (This is why, for instance, the UK section of the International Association of Theatre Critics repeatedly declined to verify that body’s code of practice, because it unambiguously placed the critic in that kind of obligated and even deferential relationship to the work being made.)

    Anyway, that’s where mine is at…

  3. Hume Baugh

    Northrop Frye: ‘The first step in developing a genuine poetics is to recognize and get rid of meaningless criticism, or talking about literature in a way that cannot help to build up a systematic structure of knowledge. This includes all the sonorous nonsense that we so often find in critical generalities, reflective comments, ideological perorations, and other consequences of taking a large view of an unorganized subject. It includes all lists of the “best” novels or poems or writers, whether their particular virtue is exclusiveness or inclusiveness. It includes all casual, sentimental, and prejudiced value-judgments, and all the literary chit-chat which makes the reputations of poets boom and crash in an imaginary stock exchange. That wealthy investor Mr. Eliot, after dumping Milton on the market, is now buying him again; Donne has probably reached his peak and will begin to taper off; Tennyson may be in for a slight flutter but the Shelley stocks are still bearish. This sort of thing cannot be part of any systematic study, for a systematic study can only progress: whatever dithers or vacillates or reacts is merely leisure-class gossip. The history of taste is no more a part of the structure of criticism than the Huxley-Wilberforce debate is a part of the structure of biological science.’


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