‘Either way I find you disgraceful’

Well, we’re back to ‘what/who are critics for’ this morning. I reviewed a new (excellent) production of Sweeney Todd on Tuesday night (here). I liked it a lot (the clue was in the five stars I gave it). There were elements I liked less, which I covered — mostly the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney. I didn’t hate him, but didn’t think he was great either. I thought he did ‘well enough’, but wasn’t, ultimately, charismatic enough, or vocally strong enough, to carry this really heavy part.

So far, I would have thought, so uncontentious. Lord knows, I’ve given much more negative views with monotonous regularity. But apparently not. Hot on the heels of the review came this beautiful thought from [name suppressed to protect the very silly]:

Read your review of Sweeney Todd. Interesting to me that, when everyone else is praising Michael Ball, you chose to be negative. I am not sure whether you have some personal grudge or you are just in the wrong profession. Either way I find you disgraceful.

The immediate urge, naturally, was to respond, ‘Mum, I told you never to write to me at work!’ I heroically suppressed it, though with regret.

But this email continues my ongoing fascination with how we regard reviews, and critics, which seems to reflect on how we regard art itself.

First of all, it assumes that a general view (‘everyone else’) is by definition correct — that, indeed, there is a correct, and therefore an incorrect, view of any single performer. Then, even if I accepted that, which of course I don’t, it extrapolates to assume there are only two reasons for dissenting from the general view: personal animus, or incompetence.

I might, of course, indulge in both. I might nurture a secret hatred for Michael Ball because he hit me on the head with a Lego brick when we were in kindergarten. (Disclaimer: I was not in kindergarten with Michael Ball. To the best of my recollection, I have never been hit on the head with a Lego brick by anyone, although I think many have wanted to.) I might also be entirely unable to tell a good performance from a bad one. The former would be unacceptable, and I should rightly be unemployable if that were the case. (I mean, not about the Lego, you understand: the secret-hatred-disguised-as-a-review.) And I might be incompetent. Which should also make me unemployable.

But the odd thing about this email was that my reservations about Ball were a couple of lines in an otherwise rave review. I unilaterally declared Imelda Staunton a Living National Treasure (to be protected by legislation). I liked the direction, the set and the lighting. In that I was in agreement with most other reviewers. So does that mean the emailer thought I was only incompetent for one paragraph, and competent for the remainder? Did she wonder if I had a personal connection to Ms Staunton, or Messrs Kent, Ward and Henderson, which meant I was prejudiced in their favour, and thus ‘disgraceful’ once more?

I realize I’m attempting to make sense out of what makes no sense. But I’m interested because these views make no sense in a very common way: they suggest that there are absolutes in the arts, that things are either good or bad, and that collective wisdom can recognize this. Both elements of this idea are, to put it in academic critico-theoretical-speak, horseshit.

There. I feel better now. Bring on the Lego!



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  1. Mirjam Visser

    March 22, 2012 - 10:59 am

    Hm, the same could be said of the person who wrote that comment…because, the funny thing is, you are disgraceful when making a negative comment, but that person isn’t when making a negative comment about you?

    • inspectorbucket

      March 22, 2012 - 1:22 pm

      Hadn’t thought of that, but it’s like ‘tolerance’ when we have to tolerate other people’s intolerances but it’s never vice versa.

  2. Ms Avery

    March 22, 2012 - 1:11 pm

    Clearly the commenter was Michael Ball, or his mum.

    • inspectorbucket

      March 22, 2012 - 1:21 pm

      The thought crossed my mind too. Heh.

  3. PD

    March 22, 2012 - 6:13 pm

    The response follows a trend in the media of locking onto a single sentence, or even less than a sentence, and using that as a sound bite to prove how insane the writer or speaker is. It’s simplistic and it’s a continuation of the twitter/sms limit of trying to get something across in a few words. It’s good for simple messages, but not great for the subtleties of reviewing a play or book. It’s one reason politicians come unstuck: they put out some short snappy sentence on twitter, which may be a thread involving several related messages, and then some tabloid lambasts them for a small fragment taken out of context.

    But there is a second point: about what is the purpose of the critic. Private Eye does a good trade in pointing up the shame of ‘log rolling’ which is essentially doing a favourable review of a friend’s book, or your editor’s wife’s dog’s essay. Perhaps your correspondent has grown cynical, looking for ulterior motives where there was none. He or she could be forgiven, as there are many ‘critics’ who are also ‘authors’ who have no hesitation in writing puffs for their friends!

    (By the way, I have The Invention of Murder on audio book and it is utterly compelling. You can make that cheque out for a fiver…)

    • inspectorbucket

      March 22, 2012 - 11:03 pm

      Heh. A fiver is a good price! Are you sure you don’t want me just not to hit you with Lego?

  4. Gavin Borchert

    March 22, 2012 - 8:33 pm

    Anything a reader disagrees with in a review is taken as evidence of the critic’s incompetence. But everything in the review that reader might agree with is ignored as counterevidence.

  5. carolineshenton

    March 25, 2012 - 4:51 pm

    Hmmm, sounds like a “devoted” (read: fixated) MB fan, determined to defend his honour. Be assured, Judith, you’re not a disgrace. Keep on doing the thing you do…

  6. Caroline Shenton

    March 25, 2012 - 4:53 pm

    Hmmm sounds like a “devoted” (read: fixated) fan determined to defend MB at all costs. Keep on doing the thing you do, Judith – it’s great!