“Well You Did Ask”: A Defence of Reviews and Reviewers

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This is not the sort of article I take much pleasure in writing. I think it is a sad state of affairs when artists and reviewers butt heads. However, a couple of recent responses to reviews on The Edge’s website have stirred me to mount a defence of critics and their craft. As both a critic and a creative (as a great many of The Edge’s writers are), I hope I can address this issue in a balanced manner.

Negative responses to criticism are nothing new. When Kevin Smith’s Cop Out was universally panned by reviewers, he took to Twitter to condemn the lot of them as “schoolyard bullies”, asking that age-old – albeit moronic – question, “what’s the point of critics?” Uwe Boll, the infamous creator of such videogame adaptation dross as House of the Dead and Blood Reign: The Third Reich, has repeatedly challenged critics to boxing matches, seemingly labouring under the misguided belief that it is possible to punch your way through negative reviews.

So, what exactly is the point of critics? In a word: entertainment. As much as it relies on the artistic talent of others (or lack thereof) to exist, criticism is an artform in and of itself. A well written, well thought out review of a film, a play or an exhibition, whether positive or negative, is entertaining to read with or without any prior knowledge of exactly what is being reviewed. I am an avid reader of Empire Magazine. I’ll probably never see ninety percent of what they review, but I read it anyway, because it’s entertaining and mentally stimulating.

Critics are never really going to change someone’s mind on whether they like something or not; well no more than Theresa May is going to convince the legions of young Corbynistas to vote Tory on June 8th. I despise Moulin Rouge with a passion, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my arguments against it will persuade any of you; God knows, I’ve tried often enough and you all still love it for some reason that will always be quite opaque to me! But I am just one person. My review is simply my opinion. It is there to entertain, not to convert the masses. No single person’s opinion is important enough to evoke the boxing-glove clad ire of Uwe Boll, surely!

On the level of amateur and student production, criticism can even go a step further: it can actually help to improve. Michael Bay is never going to change his film-making formula. He churns out box-office smash after box-office smash, however awful they might be, so why should he do anything differently? For us amateurs, however, who don’t happen to be millionaire directors, a bit of negative criticism can be very helpful in showing us how and where we can hone our craft to become even better at it. Rather than taking to the comments section of a review to harass the reviewer for not being in love with your creation, surely it is better to take note of their negative remarks, in the hope of creating something better next time. I’m quite sure they didn’t enjoy writing those negative things. Contrary to popular belief, critics are not a bunch of preening sadists, just waiting to leap on your latest creative baby and tear it to shreds, especially not when it’s the work of fellow students.

I understand the compulsion to react to negativity with negativity. I’m sorry to say I have recently been susceptible to it myself. In February, I performed in a TG (Theatre Group) independent production called Breaking that received a negative review from The Edge. This was a new piece of theater, written by a fellow student. Scriptwriting is hard, and no-one writes Citizen Kane on their first try, so naturally much of the criticism was directed towards this particular aspect of the production. “Who is this cretin?”, I remember thinking upon first reading the review; “who does he think he is, to criticize this faultless work of art? I bet he doesn’t even know what he’s talking about!” (this particular critic, it transpired, is a member of Comedy Society, frequently writes his own material, and very much does know what he’s talking about!). In my hubris, I decided to write a letter to the Editor of The Edge, suggesting that they “re-evaluate their approach towards reviews of student productions”. I acted, in short, like an arrogant, self-entitled prick who, as a critic himself, really should have known better. Some of my fellow cast members even went so far as to demand the article be taken down. I am very happy to say that the editorial team at The Edge, exercising their usual impeccable journalistic integrity, didn’t listen to any of us!

Sadly, with the recent review of Help! – another student-written production, this time for Showstoppers – this issue has reared its ugly head once again, with some of the scriptwriters’ nearest and dearest taking to the comments section to make some unsubstantiated and, frankly, cruel remarks about the reviewer, who was only trying to be honest. The irony of calling a reviewer a “petty small minded bigoted person who [should]get his head out of his own anus and join the real world” and accusing their review of being “tantamount to bullying” in the same paragraph is not lost on me.

But with both Help! and Breaking, the one voice that has been conspicuous in its silence is that of the writers themselves. Surely, they have more right than anyone to respond with fury to these negative reviews? But they haven’t. Because they are strong, intelligent human beings who want to improve at what they do. Whilst undoubtedly disappointed with the negative criticism their work received, they will take it on the shoulders and get to work on writing their next piece, which I am quite sure will be all the better for it. They aren’t Kevin Smith, they aren’t Uwe Boll, and they certainly don’t need wounded actors and angry parents to stand up for them.

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A BA English student with a love of film, tv and all things screeny!

2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Firstly, I want to say that this is a well-written piece that throws up a lot of very good points, and I do think this is a discussion that needs to be had. I’m glad you wrote it.

    With regards to the Breaking review, the main issue that strikes me is not the negative criticism in itself, which is based on opinions that the reviewer is very much entitled to, but the way it is brought across. I do think that the review lacks a certain level of sensitivity, which really ought to be taken into account when reviewing student works.

    I don’t think one can apply the same style of criticism to both student and professional creators. A student writing their very first piece will be expecting at most a handful of reviews, with the distinct possibility of getting only one reviewer to see their show. This is why I believe that tone is so important. If the review is negative, by all means the reviewer should be completely honest in their opinions, but they must remember that this negative review may constitute the entire published critical reception of the creator’s efforts. If a reviewer, intent on producing a work of art in their review, starts employing unnecessarily harsh phrasing and descriptors which, despite their inventiveness, don’t actually provide the constructive criticism that the performance deserves, one must question how beneficial the review could possibly be.

    The Breaking review is an example of this. The reviewer wastes no time in employing provocative metaphors: a “howling void” in place of a plot, which is then “drowned in a thick, cold soup of phony drama.” Yet in his final paragraph, he states that he must pass over more specific issues “in stoic silence.” Some of these unmentioned flaws are described as “inappropriate,” a strong criticism which surely would have proven useful if it were developed upon. I understand that to ask the reviewer to describe absolutely everything they didn’t like about a performance would be an unreasonable demand, but if your goal of constructive negative criticism (which I agree with wholeheartedly) is to be met, one must strive to give as much detail as they possibly can.

    It goes without saying that I bear the reviewer no ill will. His review of Acis and Galatea, a performance that took place a few months ago and is very dear to me, is far more constructive and specific in its criticism. The point I’m making is that some of these student reviews are not beyond criticism themselves.

    • avatar

      This is a very valid point of view and one I would have liked to discuss further in the article (bloody word limits!). Indeed, it’s a point of view I shared most strongly when I first read the Breaking review. I was quite convinced that the reviewer knew the writer and had some sort of personal vendetta against him. I have since spoken to the reviewer and learned that the reason he asked to review this particular piece was because he didn’t know anyone involved in the production on a personal level. I think this shows a very high level of personal journalistic integrity. Whilst I agree that his comments were strong, I’m quite satisfied that they were his honest opinions and that there was no intended malice in them.

      As mentioned in the article, I believed, at the time, that there should be a separate approach to the work of fellow students. In hindsight however, and having discussed the matter with the current editor and editor-in-waiting, I don’t think that sort of double standard does anyone any favours. I’m a playwright and director myself and hope, one day, to have shows performed on a professional level. Should that day ever come, I know the theatre critics in The Times aren’t going to hold back, so I’d rather the critics of The Edge didn’t treat me as a special case either.

      In truth, the section on constructive criticism was directed more at the Help review (and I hope you’d agree that, in that instance at least, the backlash was completely unwarranted), whilst the Breaking review was brought up as an example of my own fallibility in such a situation. I felt it was important to demonstrate that I wasn’t attempting to present myself as being in a “holier-than-thou” position.

      Thank you for your well thought out and engaging comment.

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