In 2008, the Observer convened seven leading cultural critics, including the film critic Philip French, art critic Brian Sewell and theatre critic Michael Billington, and seven bloggers, including Lynne Hatwell (AKA dovegreyreader) and film blogger Rich Cline to discuss whether the art of criticism was under threat from the web. Beneath the headline “Is it curtains for critics?”, they discussed the dramatic shedding of critics in publishing, particularly on US local papers, and the rise of an insurgent type of criticism – breezy, immediate and intimate – on the internet.
Fast-forward 10 years and criticism has, so far, weathered the storm. Critics on UK newspapers and magazines, though fewer in number, have not been wiped out, and, particularly in film and music, online critics have joined the industry establishment. Many of the old guard’s concerns – that the authority of criticism would be undermined (“and then we shall descend into mayhem,” as Sewell put it), or that online critics’ more nimble publication times would cut into the demand for print reviews – have not come to pass.
Is a new generation of mainstream critics emerging? With the closing date approaching for this year’s Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts criticism, which aims to give a boost to budding new reviewers, we invited the Observer’s longest-serving critic, Susannah Clapp (theatre), and the most recent addition to our team, Simran Hans (film), to discuss where criticism is in 2018.
SD: What, in 2018, is criticism for?
Susannah Clapp At its best, without being too highfalutin about it, you should be able to make the case for any art or book or show being a way into the wider world, to open you out rather than for you to have some “precious communion” with an art form.
Simran Hans I feel like the most important part of my job is to cut through the noise and amplify things that are smaller, weirder, more interesting, ambitious, even if they have perhaps failed. Susannah, you said on the radio once that part of being a critic is being an advocate for the unpopular. One of the great joys is to be able to lift something that is small and might otherwise not get seen.
Art is a product, especially in Hollywood. And the reviews, the box-office numbers are all part of that. These are the metrics that are being used to evaluate whether a film is worth the money that’s been put into it, whether its end justifies the means. And that leads to only certain types of art being reproduced and the art becoming homogeneous.
Susannah, in your 20 years as a theatre critic, what’s the most significant thing that’s changed?
SC Two main things have changed in the theatre. One is that it’s slowly become less rebarbatively male. There are more women running theatres, there are more female directors. And then there’s cross-gender casting: when the Donmar did its all-female Shakespeare (Julius Caesar in 2012, Henry IV in 2014 and The Tempest in 2016), at a blow they changed things, and not just in theatre. People see now that it is perfectly acceptable to have female as the default position.
The other thing is that, regrettably, there is just less of all arts criticism than there was. For example the BBC has more or less dropped the idea of having critical programmes. A few years ago it was announced that it would have more arts coverage, but the pitch was that this would be by collaborating with directors or heads of main arts organisations. The word critic wasn’t mentioned once.
I’m not suggesting for a minute that it’s fantastically desirable to have a lot of greybeards sitting around stroking their chins. Obviously, you want practitioners to speak up. But the idea that they talk to a presenter in an unmediated way, as if there were no PR people handling this transaction – it’s absurd! I think it’s part of a peculiar anxiety now about criticism being perceived as being elitist. People no longer think it’s appropriate to pass judgment.
SH This is something that’s infecting film as well, in that some critics don’t want to be perceived as elitist. More than ever, criticism is seen as a publicity tool. And the relationship between the PR and the critic is, I think, pretty tense. The people who are marketing the films or the plays or the music, they have an idea of the narrative they want to push. Critics who don’t have the benefit of a media name like the Observer attached to them can be concerned that their access might be limited if they say the wrong thing. The critic Steve Rose wrote an article last year about [the film review aggregation site] Rotten Tomatoes, referring to stats that show reviews on the site have over time become kinder to mainstream blockbuster films. Reviewing for a national newspaper means you don’t have to worry about flattery and ego and poster quotes.
SC While we’re talking about the move against elitism, it’s become quite chic for people to attack theatre in general, in a way that’s not true of any other art form, I think. There are quite good reasons for that. One is that it’s so bloody expensive to get into the theatre. And I think that’s going to be even more so now that Travelex has withdrawn its sponsorship from the National Theatre. And of course it’s famously embarrassing to be trapped in a very, very bad theatre show.
But there are always people who “bravely” speak about their dislike of the theatre as if they were overcoming an enormous social pressure to like it! Practically every year since I became a theatre critic somebody has written that piece. There can be perfectly good reasons for not liking it. But the braver opposition would be to a more popular art form.
Simran, your entire career has been post-digital revolution. How is writing for print different?
SH I’ve always written for both [print and web]. The internet is how I kind of came up. I wrote for magazines too but probably wouldn’t be on the Observer if I hadn’t been found via my pieces online. The internet has to be a way of discovering the next generation of people. The big thing about print is how helpful it is to have an editor, and that everything I write also goes through two subeditors.
Another thing ushered in by the need to grab people’s attention online is star ratings, which are near ubiquitous. The Observer was the last paper in the UK to bring them in, and we still only give ratings online, not in print. What do you think of them?
SC They do get you on to the poster, but I don’t like them. They mean people don’t read: they count. The three-star review is particularly ambiguous: it can be something tremendously ambitious which has failed, or it can be a perfectly well-worked piece which doesn’t have anything very major to transmit.
SH It’s so arbitrary as well. I’ve written so many three-star reviews that are quite negative. Or two-star reviews that contain praise. Most critics would rather not do them.
One of the things I’m struck by most when looking back at the piece we did 10 years ago is that almost all the critics said they never went online. How does the internet feed into your work now?
SH In online spaces there’s more scope to do things differently to the standard 500-word, starred review. For example, there is a niche website I love called Reverse Shot, which comes out of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. They often do very long, highly analytical reviews.
SC I completely agree. And also, you can read people at the beginning of their careers; you get a taste for what they’re up to and the sort of things they’re looking out for, and sometimes that’s distinctly different from what people are doing in print. And of course you can communicate more directly with readers. When Michael Sheen did The Passion in Port Talbot, a site-specific work which lasted about three days, very few critics went down. It took place in real time and was tremendously impressive. I was able to tweet about it in real time, and it felt exciting and immediate, and really fitted with the piece itself.
Do you think about the reader when you’re writing?
SC Actually, I don’t. I’m just trying to remember accurately, and to recreate what I remember as specifically and as evocatively as possible. In other words, description is as important as actually laying down the judgment.
I think there’s a particular responsibility on a theatre reviewer to say what they actually see in all its dimensions, as every performance is different. But I would also say that the bane of theatre criticism is the adjective. That’s partly because it’s a quick way of people getting their quotes on marketing posters. If you’ve got “Pants-wettingly funny, the Observer”, then that tends to go up in the West End. Good writing brings the reader closer to the art, without it being about – or all about – the writer.
SH I always joke that I try to make my reviews unquotable. I don’t want my words to be taken out of context. If you look at posters and you look at what the quotes are, it’s one of the most platitudinous things. I do get a lot of messages from aspiring writers asking me for advice. I would never want to discourage anyone, but the thing I always say is, why do you want to do this? Is it just because you want to share your opinion? Because you can do that and it doesn’t have to be your job.You certainly can’t and shouldn’t do it for the money! I think there has to be more of a drive to be doing it other than because you think it’s cool, or glamorous.
As part of that next generation, Simran, you are I think the only contracted critic on a “broadsheet” newspaper who is under 35, possibly even 40, and the only one who is a person of colour. Across all art forms…
SH I didn’t know it was quite as stark as that. It does feel weird to go into the screening room and have nobody who looks like you. I’m lucky that I’ve got a very supportive team of colleagues. But in the actual screening room it can feel tense. Maybe that’s me projecting my insecurity, but it is a strange sensation. It’s a problem of access. And it only gets fixed if people with editorial power are either actively looking to encourage people and to train them. Because the apprenticeship is the job. You learn by doing it. Also it’s important to point out that I have a reasonably middle-class upbringing: I do think the most problematic barrier is still class.
SC Change can be so slow. When I started, I asked a colleague why theatre critics were so male and he looked astonished. He hadn’t even noticed.
SH I think there’s a misconception, though, that women or people of colour will receive the art in a particular way that directly aligns with their identity politics. That is just not true. We do need more different voices, but there needs to be a plurality of both voices and views, because that’s what will keep criticism alive. If there are a lot more women, but they are replicating the same confirmation bias as the men, then it becomes a feedback loop.
One of the remarks that often comes around in discussions about diversity is: “Oh well, it would be ludicrous if only critics who are represented in a particular work were allowed to respond to it…”
SC The people who object in that way are usually people who are themselves very well represented. We’re a long way from that particular danger!
What about the huge appetite for the negative review? It’s become this fantastically entertaining blood sport. Jay Rayner, the Observer restaurant critic, has just published an entire book of monsterings…
SH Jay is not gratuitous, he’s really just digging his claws into things that he thinks are bad value for money, that are capitalising on what is fashionable in a way that is fake or performative. I think those are all valid things to criticise – it’s attacking the cynicism behind it. But I think it’s harder when it’s a movie.
SC You’ve got a responsibility to clear some of the debris away, but I think negative reviews are different in the theatre, where you have living human beings right in front of you. They’re going to have to do the same thing the next night. You can see their poor faces at curtain calls sometimes – the smile flitting across their increasingly wan faces as they realise they’re in a bummer! It takes a bit more grit and precision to try to identify something that is good when nobody else thinks it’s good. Kenneth Tynan did a lot of attack reviews, but he’s most remembered for saying he couldn’t love somebody who didn’t love Look Back in Anger. That cleared a lot of stagnation from the theatre.
Have you ever regretted a review?
SC One of my more frequent regrets is about having not mentioned somebody or something. To acknowledge people who haven’t had a big shout-out before is the most important thing for me. Anybody can write a review saying Maggie Smith is pretty good! I was terrifically pleased to have been able to praise Denise Gough and Carey Mulligan very early on in their careers.
SH I regret it if I feel like I haven’t done a good enough job. I try to trust my judgment, and it’s really hard, especially because I’m younger, I’ve obviously seen fewer things, I’m less experienced. But you have to try to tune that out and get on with the work in hand.
It’s a catch-22, isn’t it? Without experience, how will the next generation of critics evolve?
SH Not to bang our own drum, but initiatives like the Observer/Anthony Burgess prize are really valuable because they give a more substantial platform to writers who are fighting to be read. And I think access activists like Arts Emergency are brilliant.
SC Yes, the collective Critics of Colour is doing great things for theatre criticism.
SH I also think you improve by just living more life. That’s a thing I feel somewhat hampered by: that I haven’t lived enough to have a full enough response to everything.
SC That’s interesting. I agree, in that in some ways it gets easier as you get older and you build a back catalogue of plays or films. But that has dangers as well. You must fight against becoming a parody of yourself. And it’s interesting, your point about bringing your own experience. I think that’s true, but you also look to art to extend the range of your experience. I don’t just mean riding bareback on a rocket or something. But emotional things. In some ways, being young and at the beginning can be the very best thing.
The New York Times film critic AO Scott published a book, Better Living Through Criticism, in 2016, in which he argued that criticism is a creative act and an art form in itself. Do you agree?
SH I don’t think I do. When done well, it should be a pleasure to read, but I’m not sure if it’s the same thing as art. The intention is to bring the reader closer to the art, not to make art out of art that already exists.
SC Oscar Wilde said there’d be no art without criticism! He was being provocative, but I do think the act of trying to be exact and evocative is not a mechanical one. Still, it would be too daunting if every Thursday morning you sat down and thought “Now I’m going to write my work of art!”
Scott also said that in this digital age there is more culture than ever, and that the main job of today’s critic is to find the stuff worth seeing or hearing or reading. Is that right?
SH Well, when I’m writing I’m asking: what is the film doing, and is it doing it well? Not even necessarily is it good or bad – that’s down to taste. I want to hold the thing up enough to be able to see it for what it is. That’s the work of criticism.
SC In today’s great whirligig of material, perhaps it is more difficult to navigate. But I think people have always felt this. A critic’s job is to persuade people that what they are paying attention to is worth attention. And that by paying attention you might think more precisely, feel more fully, about the rest of your life.