Thursday, November 11, 2010

Shop talk

Julia Keller, the Chicago Tribune book critic, admits that she would rather write a positive review than a negative one, which "makes me sound like a wimp, a softie, a sap, a pushover." In deciding what to review, and how to phrase her critique, "I can . . . show you how fiendishly clever I am by a take-no-prisoners attack on a book I don't like, or I can tell you about a book that may move you, inform you, entertain you. If choosing the second option makes me sound like a weakling, then fine. Pick somebody else for your side in dodge ball:",0,5123218.column

Anne Midgette, The Washington Post's music critic, sympathizes but begs to differ. Critics who accentuate the positive nourish "a school of thought that the arts, like cooking and travel, belong in the category of marvelous lifestyle enhancements: things that adorn our lives and make them nicer. The role of a critic, in this view, is simply to alert readers to the wealth of marvelous things that are out there, and act as a consumer advocate, preferably by recommending nice things, or writing about the nice things that have taken place:"

The late Edith Lindeman, longtime theater and movie critic of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and spare-time lyricist of popular songs ("Little Things Mean a Lot," "The Red-Headed Stranger"), liked to recall a faithful reader who rarely agreed with her reviews but still found them useful. If you don't like it, I expect I will, the reader told the critic.

That constructively adversarial relationship is surely common among critics (and opinion writers in general) and their readers. It's also fairly common among critics and the artists and organizations they cover, sometimes leading to exchanges of heated missives, occasionally to public confrontations.

Constructive adverseness, emphasizing the former, avoiding nastiness in the latter (grumpiness is OK, in moderation), strikes me as an efficacious arrangement. The critic can stick to a set of standards and opine honestly and freely. Readers can find their points on the artistic compass relative to the critic's and adjust their expectations accordingly. The review serves its purpose, albeit backhandedly.

And when the critic and reader agree, you can be sure that something special has occurred on the stage, screen or page.