Saturday, June 16, 2012

Is there room for critics in a Market Society?, Part II

Samuel L. Jackson comes after A.O. Scott.
When Samuel L. Jackson "hit back" at New York Times critic A.O. Scott over his review of The Avengers, Jackson only typed 105 characters into his Twitter feed (he had 35 to spare). But he still sculpted an argument molded to the culture almost as closely as an ear bud is to its - well, ear.

 #Avengers fans,NY Times critic AO Scott needs a new job! Let's help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do! Jackson tweeted on May 3. And as his fingers stroked the keys of his iPad, they also touched, consciously or unconsciously, on a number of unspoken millennial assumptions and attitudes.

First - note Jackson doesn't actually say Scott was wrong about The Avengers  - about which Scott had sighed, "While The Avengers is hardly worth raging about, its failures are significant and dispiriting."  (He went on to say: "The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.")

No, Jackson let Scott's assessment stand, in its way.  And indeed, he has never actually said that he thinks The Avengers is a great movie (I'd be surprised if he did).  No, Jackson instead said that A.O. Scott wasn't doing his job - or, to be precise, that he cannot do his job.

But what is that job, you well may ask?

Now perhaps this is a trivial point.  But sometimes subtle details tell you everything you need to know about the subtext of a debate, and I find it intriguing that Jackson didn't bother to counter Scott's claims, or hint at any kind of argument at all, really, regarding The Avengers.  He seems to assume that the actual quality of the movie is beside the point, as it has proved so popular.  Thus he simply contacts the virtual hordes of its fans, and lets them know that someone in a galaxy far, far away, where alien life forms still read newsprint, has not done his duty toward them.

In other words, Jackson constructs the role of the critic in terms of his or her relationship to a particular movie's audience.  Not even its potential audience, but merely the fanboys who have already lined up to see it; and of course (needless to say!) not to the larger culture, much less any longer view of the cinema.  No, in Jackson's view (and that of many people today), the critic is there to predict and reflect the majority opinion of the audience niche (large or small as it may be) to which a movie has been marketed.

But then other "stakeholders" in the arts have gone even further.   I read the following post, directed to young playwrights, recently on the Emerson College site HowlRound, posted by a body that styles itself "The New York Times Critic Watch Research Team":

Would you ever go out of your way to read [a review] that wasn’t kind in order to “learn something” or “make yourself a better writer” or “give yourself a reason to drink heavily?” No. 

All this begs the question of whether reviews should ever include dramaturgical thoughts like: “the second act needed to be shortened” or “the subplot with the incest didn’t work.” Is this a specific request to the writer or director? Is this so that the audience will go into the show preparing to dread the second act? We know that a review is not studied dramaturgy but rather personal opinion. (If it was dramaturgy the note-giver would see the show more than once, read the script, ask the writer why the second act was written that way before proclaiming a solution to something the writer/director does not think is a problem).

We think this practice, when it happens, is weird.

Now these sentiments may be partly tongue-in-cheek, but let's be honest: they're largely not.  And let's also recall that Samuel L. Jackson didn't actually say out loud that "critics should not practice criticism."  (He implied it, but dodged stating it bluntly.)  The playwrights of HowlRound have less compunction, however.  They find the very essence of criticism "weird," and they want nothing of it.  They won't read their reviews, so don't bother, Mr. Critic, to point out that their second acts don't work!  They'll never know - and anyway, even if their second acts do suck, people should still pay money to suffer through them.  And then write congratulatory notes on Facebook, too!  Because otherwise their feelings will be hurt!

Okay, okay, I know - what do you expect from a crowd of undergraduate playwrights?

Would you sell your critical soul for a Benjamin?  (You probably already have.)

But consider one final piece of evidence in this ongoing debate - the recent offer by the British company Strut & Fret to potential reviewers of their coming visit to Brooklyn: they'll pay $100 for an online review they can reprint as ad copy.  The pitch goes like this:

To qualify, you must (1) have a website (which may be a print medium's online site) on which you exclusively or regularly post theatre reviews; (2) post a review of The Tie That Binds currently in its final week at the Gallery Players Black Box Festival; (3) notify the producers by email at with a link to your review at the time of publication; and (4) agree to permit the producers, should they request to do so, to reprint, publish, and post your review -- or an excerpt of approximately 450 words approved by you -- online with proper credit to you as author, all other rights reserved to you. All reviews must identify playwright Rebecca Sue Haber, director Heather Arnson, and producers David Watson and Strut & Fret, Inc. Reviews posted before 9:00 a.m. EDT Saturday, June 16 will be eligible for a $100 reprint fee if selected for reprint. Reviews posted after that time but on or before Saturday, June 30 will be eligible for a $65 fee if selected for reprint.

Some bloggers have tried to simulate shock at this proposal - but for the life of me I can't figure out why; doesn't it merely openly formalize the relationship that Samuel L. Jackson and HowlRound have suggested?  Yes, I'm afraid it does: it simply identifies economically the critic as a cog in the arts marketing sector of our over-arching market society (as all these parties agree he or she should be).  And what's more - aren't Strut & Fret merely accurately diagnosing the current state of affairs, anyhow?   Critics already behave as if they're being paid by producers - when they don't, they usually face severe blowback from their editors - or colleagues (even major theatres like the Huntington - and of course the A.R.T. - have mounted coordinated email and comment attacks on critics who have harshed on their shows). Indeed, at this point I can't think of many Boston critics who couldn't take up Strut & Fret's offer with a clear conscience.  (Certainly Don Aucoin could send along all his copy without changing a line.)

But would they be in the right to do so?  Let's indulge in a little thought experiment for a moment, and ask ourselves, "Who should a critic work for?  And what precisely should be his job?"

Let's do it in another post, though.  I know I promised I'd keep this discussion to two installments, but sorry, you're going to have to read a third.  To be continued!


  1. They won't read their reviews, so don't bother, Mr. Critic, to point out that their second acts don't work! They'll never know - and anyway, even if their second acts do suck, people should still pay money to suffer through them. And then write congratulatory notes on Facebook, too! Because otherwise their feelings will be hurt!

    The irony is that contemporary practice includes a development period of workshops, readings, and consultations with dramaturgs and such that should be telling the writer before the first production whether or not the second act does "suck." It's a fairly artificial distinction that the dramaturg is allowed to make comment while the critic is not, since they have similar skill sets in terms of analyzing plays and productions.

    Also, as a point of information, I don't believe there are many undergraduate contributors to the HowlRound (it was previously based at Arena Stage and only moved to Emerson a few months ago.) The contributors range from emerging to well-established artists mostly working in the "new play sector." It's crowd sourced so the quality varies quite a bit from individual piece to individual piece or from continuing series to continuing series.

  2. You're kidding - these people are adults? OMG.