On Criticism

Critic/profilie writer par excellence Ken Tynan in 1966. Item No. 11 on my list should’ve been “Don’t smoke.”

So on Sunday evening I had the pleasure of talking with a dozen or so very smart high schoolers enrolled in the Shakespeare Theatre Company‘s Young Critics Program. They’ve seen and written about every show in the STC’s season this year, and heard from several other guest speakers. The invitation suggested a few topics and said I should be ready with material enough to speak for 30 minutes, with some additional time after that for questions and discussion. They wanted some basic biographical stuff and some inside-baseball stuff about writing for newspapers, but the part I was most interested in talking about is the basic set of principles I try to use when I write criticism.

I made notes. Since I already went to the trouble of typing them, I’d like to share them here.

I should acknowledge I’ve lifted at least a few of these from a talk my pal the great film critic Michael Phillips, currently of the Chicago Tribune, gave during an NEA fellowship I took part in in Los Angeles in 2009. Hail and thank you, Michael Phillips.

Also, please bear in mind I was trying to make my comments appropriate for an audience of precocious ninth-through-12th-graders. So people much smarter than I am, in other words.

Here’s what I said to them.

. . .

When you’re writing criticism, you’re interrogating your knee-jerk impressions. We know what what we like when we see it, and we know when we instantly dislike something, but often we don’t know why. Criticism is about figuring out the why for yourself, and then explaining that in a way that also gives your reader some useful information about the play or book or film or whatever it is.

That continual process of asking youself “Why do I feel this way?” will broaden your taste. You may find yourself more open to experiencing different kinds of art that hadn’t appealed to you previously. That’s a great reason to try writing criticism. But first, let’s talk about why to read it.

1. What is criticism for? A few things, actually.

(In sequence from least-interesting to most:)

A review can help your readers decide whether the thing you’re reviewing is worth their time and money. This is sometimes called the “consumer guide” function. I think this is the least interesting thing criticism does, but theaters and newspapers will remain invested in it, I expect. You guys have grown up with blogs and Twitter accounts and all these ways for people who don’t write for a living to share their opinions with a mass audience. But a few professional critics can still influence the commercial fate of a show.

A review creates a record for posterity of what this ephemeral thing — a play or a concert or an art exhibit — was, or of how an non-ephemeral document, like a book or a movie, was received in its time. Some great art is instantly recognizeable as great, but a lot of it isn’t fully appreciated until much later. A review will almost always have been written within 72 hours of seeing a play, and usually much sooner than that, so it will document a fairly fresh reaction to what the critic saw.

Reviews can help you keep tabs on what’s going on. You can’t see every play performed in DC, or read every book published or hear every album released in a given year. If keeping up with art is important to you, reading criticism can help you stay informed.

A review can offer your readers a surrogate experience of seeing or reading or hearing something you don’t have the opportunity to witness firsthand — or a surrogate experience of experiencing a piece of art through someone else’ eyes. This function is what I personally am most interested in as a reader. Everything I experience in the world is framed by my personal history, my education, my emotional state. A good writer can make me see what he saw.

It is possible to do all of these things in one piece.

2. Objectivity? Fuggedaboudit.

Yes, of course you have to go into everything you see with an open mind. But I still want you to review the show as you. We all have our prejudices — a more politie word would be preferences — so write in a way that lets your reader know what those are. That’s more honest and more interesting than pretending you don’t have any. Some of the critics I read the most faithfully are the ones I tend to disagree with more often than not. Personally, I want to read vivid, expressive writing more than than I want to read that someone agrees with me.

3. Research Will Save You Time.

Know something about what you’re about to see. Is it a new play? If so, what else has that playwright written? Has this director worked at this theater before? If it’s a new production of a classic, think about why this company is choosing to do this play now. Is is just a popular seat-filler, or is there something about what’s happening in the world that makes this play seem particularly relevant? Are they doing something new with an old play, changing the setting or the gender or race of its main character, for example?

You don’t need to be a scholar in this play or this playwright, but you should try to know more than the person sitting next to you. (Unless the person next to you is someone you chose to bring for their knowledge on the subject, which is often a good idea.)

4. The Three Questions.

Your review should let your reader know these three things: What is this production trying to achieve? Was it successful? Is the thing that it succeeded or failed at something that’s worth doing at all?

If you answer these questions and show your work, you won’t have to say “I like this” or “I didn’t like this,” because those sentences are boring to write and boring to read, and your reader will already understand whether you liked it or didn’t because of how you chose to answer those three questions.

5. It’s a Big Language. Learn It and Use It.

We all like to read copy that flows easily and feels conversational. But writing is different from speaking. Even if you’re writing on deadline, by which I mean you need to write your review immediately after the show ends, you still have more time to turn your thoughts into language than you do when you’re just talking. So take some time to find the words that most specifically express your meaning. More words won’t necessarily make your review stronger, but making your words more precise will, every time.

6. Be Funny…

…because your readers will appreciate it, and it will make them remember you and look for your byline…

7. …But NEVER Be Mean.

The performers you’re watching are exposing themselves to you emotionally. The results might be brilliant and might be terrible. Most of the time, they’ll be neither of those. But show them the respect of giving them your full attention, and of doing everything you can to understand what they’re trying to do. Then be honest about what worked for you and what didn’t.

8. Show Your Work.

Don’t say, “The acting is fantastic. The costumes are beautiful. The sets are astonishing.” Those are abstractions. None of those sentences put a picture the reader’s mind. I want you to tell me what you saw, what you experienced, as specifically as possible. “I like the suspicious, feral quality Liam Hemsworth brings to the role of Prince Hamlet,” is better than “Liam Hemsworth’s acting as Hamlet is truly outstanding.”

9. Anything Is More Interesting Than a Plot Summary.

Sometimes you can’t get away without a sentence or three about the story, but make it as short as possible. This is the one area where it’s okay to be vague.

10. That Marker Is Permanent.

Assume that what you write for publication is going to outlive you, so make sure to write something you can live with. And take pride in your work. Anyone who takes an interest in you will be able to find it if they want to. Your review will always be around, and your name will always be on it, so make it as thoughtful and funny and expressive as you can. And once you’ve done that, don’t forget to sweat the little stuff: Check the spelling of names, and make sure your reporting about prior productions, etc., is sound.

BLACKOUT. End of play.

. . .

As the class was discussing item no. 3, specifically, that part about considering how a new production of an old play might recontextualize the piece, one girl mentioned how much she’d liked the STC’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona from back in January. When I reviewed it, I said the production’s attempts to appeal to an audience the age of its principal characters by incorporating text messaging and U2 songs felt desperate. I mean, I like U2. Love them, actually. But then I’m vintage enough that I was several years out of college before I ever sent a text message, or even had a cell phone. Is there a 17-year-old in the world in 2012 who cares about U2?

Well, this girl said it all felt relevant to her. That’s the word she used. I was grateful to be reminded that as with so many things in life, you can apply these tools sincerely and you might still end up sincerely wrong.

Here beginneth the lesson.

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3 responses to “On Criticism

  1. Nice. And it’s good to see someone telling youngsters to do what they themselves actually practice. I bet they got it. Every bit of it.

  2. thanks again for coming to speak with us! your advice was entirely beneficial and I have definitely found ways to use it in my review of the show

  3. Pingback: How to Write a Movie Review - Movie Mom

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