Stop Surviving, Start Serving – The Future of Criticism
Published in The Stage, 17.10.2013
The following was adapted from a speech I wrote for – and deviated from – during the Critics’ Circle Centenary Conference.
Criticism, as you’ve no doubt heard time and again, is in crisis. Word counts are down. Rates of pay are down. Staff critic roles are down. The Independent on Sunday recent adoption of cut’n’paste ‘criticism’ – which would be damnable were it not so lamentable – is part of a long process of erosion.
As the crisis worsens, we reassert the value and importance of criticism. And every time we do that, we’re looking back on what criticism’s been, not forward to what it needs to become. Any crisis needs action.
Critics don’t really work in the future tense. We look at today’s theatre and we assess it against the theatre that’s come before. We compare, contrast and categorise. We call Kenneth Branagh the new Laurence Oliver and wonder where the next Andrew Lloyd Webber’s going to come from. We long for another Look Back in Anger moment. We rank Hamlets. To review is to look again, after all.
It’s why we so often miss those game-changing productions that write their own rules and invent their own criteria for judgement. There are plenty of examples – more than any critic likes to admit: Ghosts. Godot. Saved. Blasted. Three Kingdoms, maybe? Who knows? Sometimes, we can’t see the future even when it hits the stage in front of us.
Broadly speaking, ours is a reactive sport, based on induction and instinct. Prophesy is not really our strong suit – still less inventing the future. That’s for artists to do. Not critics.
Given all that, you can understand why this feels like a crisis. Because our nature is to look back, we’re not very open to change. Faced with the stark choice of adapt or die, we’ve pretty much snuggled into our deathbeds. Even at last week’s Critics’ Circle conference – on a day dedicated to discussing criticism in the middle of its supposed crisis – we dedicated all of 45 minutes thinking about its future; less than either the past, the present and, entertaining though they were, Michael Simkins’s memories.
When we address the subject in print, we make the case for criticism as it’s always been. Even online, the criticism we practice is basically the same as ever – only shorter and cheaper – and even with social media, the relationship between critic, reader and artist hasn’t radically changed since Tynan’s day.
What has changed is that criticism doesn’t make money for media organisations anymore. It doesn’t sell papers – what does? – and it doesn’t get the sort of hits that make money, the Harry-Styles-Sidebar-of-Shame-Gangnam-Style sort of hits. Isn’t it inevitable that in ten, twenty, thirty years time – during my generation’s working life, certainly – newspapers won’t employ critics? Even if they do, it’ll be a very, very different job with very, very different technologies. We need to face up to that.
When we say that criticism is in crisis, what we really mean is that criticism as we’ve always known it is on last legs. The only crisis is that we’re standing vigil by its bedside. Criticism needs to change and that means we need to start changing it. We need to start asking big, uncomfortable questions about what it might change into. Newspapers might survive without critics. The question is can critics survive without newspapers?
This is the million dollar question – if newspapers aren’t the paymaster, who or what is? I’m no closer to an answer than anyone, but it begs other, easier, 100-grand questions.
The first is about the possibilities. What might be the benefits? Freedom to escape a news-led agenda and back the theatre that you really believe in. Freedom from word-counts and standard-issue, catch-all reviews. Authority based on what you write, not where you write it. Answering to your readership, not your editor. A reciprocal, conversational relationship with readers and other writers. Reviews that acknowledge and talk to and rely on each other. Criticism as a team sport. A properly critical culture.
The second set of questions are more pragmatic. How might we be of value? To whom? This is where you start to really reinvent the critic. Think of embedded, process-led criticism, of theatre clubs and platform discussions. Think of writers and thinkers in residence at festivals, in-house critics at theatres. Think of the think-tank style work Maddy Costa and Catherine Love are doing with FUEL, trying to build ties between theatre-makers, venues and audiences. Think of criticism that tries to serve – really serve – the artform that it loves and the artists that make it, that tries to open theatre out and make it better, always knowing that honesty is its greatest asset. A culture of criticism.
There is so much more that we could be doing, but we have to look forwards not back. We need to start living in the future, even though we’re stuck in the present. We have to stop surviving and start serving. We have to stop talking about what criticism once was and ask what it could become. Anything else is just nostalgia.