What is the point of professional critics? Would airheaded amateurs be better?

Nick Awde on Skype from France this morning

Writer Nick Awde talking from France on Skype this morning

Yesterday, I got a message from writer Nick Awde in France asking if I wanted to be interviewed because, he said, “it might give you a blog and might give me a half page feature”.

So I Skyped him this morning.

“I’m now editor on a new international literary magazine called Font,” Nick told me. “I thought I’d write something about critics, but there aren’t really such things as literary critics – just people reviewing their mates’ books – so I thought I’d talk to you, given your overview of people doing creative things in general, and then we’ve both got something. You’ve got a blog. I’ve got a piece….”

“Well,” I said, “there’s the argument that Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, become critics. Performers at the Edinburgh Fringe are always complaining about inexperienced critics reviewing their shows. Bob Slayer talked to one comedy critic this year who had never heard of Morecambe & Wise – not just never seen them, but never heard of them. I guess it’s happening because more and more – to save money – newspapers are not having staff critics.”

The Independent on Sunday,” Nick reminded me, “recently re-launched, with all of its staff arts writers sacked.”

“And some newspapers,” I said, “have now started using readers who write or Tweet in with their opinions. It’s ironic that newspapers are sacking staff critics to save money because, if you’re a newspaper owner, you should be building up reviewers as personalities.

“As far as I understand it, with The Times and other newspapers which are behind paywalls, one of the attractions to the paying public is not that they can read news on the website – you can get that 24-hours-a-day on TV – The attraction is you can read features written by known columnists.

“So presumably if you have a critic whose opinions you trust – it used to be Dilys Powell on British cinema or Clive Barnes on the New York theatre scene and now maybe it’s Bruce Dessau on London comedy and Kate Copstick on Edinburgh comedy – if you have an ongoing, named, trusted critic, then that’s going to increase your brand awareness and get more punters reading your product.

“The counter-argument is that the audience is not made up of people who have been going to comedy shows four times a week for the last 15 years. You read reviews to decide whether or not to go to a show or a film or to buy a book. Do you actually want to read reviews written by people you actually share nothing with – they live in Islington in three-storey Georgian houses – or do you want to hear the views of the sort of people you might actually go to the performance with?

“Why are professional critics writing reviews? Is it because they want to sound very knowledgable and refer to arcane events 35 years ago at the London Palladium when they should be telling you I thought this new show was quite good and you should go? Maybe the more experienced critics get, the more out-of-touch they get with the people they’re writing for.

“The comedy audience is mostly maybe between 19 and 30. So maybe you want those sort of people writing reviews.

“The argument against that is you will then have 1,000 opinions by people who may not know what the hell they’re talking about and may actually just be friends of the performer who are ‘bigging’ him or her up.

“I would argue that having ongoing, paid, Big Name critics is better but it IS arguable. You could equally argue that having 100 different people will average out to what the punter may like or not like.”

“Also, in Britain,” said Nick, “we’ve got different words. We’ve got ‘critic’, ‘reviewer’, ‘pundit’.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “When people talk about critics, they’re mostly talking about reviewers. There are very few critics who analyse things.”

“We don’t like that any more, do we?” asked Nick.

Jerry Lewis - viewed as comedy genius in France

Jerry Lewis – hailed as a true comedy genius in France

“Well, that’s too French for us,” I said. “It’s too intellectual. The British are suspicious of intellectualising. If someone writes a critique – which is a French word – it’s viewed as someone being up their own arse. Whereas a ‘reviewer’ is just someone saying Oh, this is quite good. The British don’t like intellectualising… Having said that, yesterday I went to a lecture on The Science of Laughter at University College, London. And, this afternoon, I’m going to the launch of the Centre For Comedy Studies Research at Brunel University. What are critics like in France?”

“They still have a big newspaper industry here,” said Nick, “and you can have about four pages of daily opinions and two pages of that you can give over to your theatre critic, because he will work in a mention of the President’s latest hairstyle or a politician’s toilet habits. This is permitted… plus they all fucking know their philosophy. So they just throw that into it. They can do it. Whereas in Britain, as we all know, no-one will pay you to do that. Our ‘opinion pieces’ are people talking about the size of Katie Price’s tits or the width of her latest autobiography.”

“This interview,” I asked, “is possibly going to appear where?”

“In Font magazine,” said Nick. “It’s a literary magazine but really about the Arts in general – from a UK perspective but on what the rest of the world are doing.”

“Does Font have a website?” I asked.

“It should be up by the end of this week, I think,” said Nick, “at www.fontmagazine.org.”

“But I have a much bigger project called Open Theatres, which I’ve been working on for about five years. It would work for comedy or anything. You have a sort of shop window website in which everyone puts up what they do with their contact details and they just update it occasionally. It’s not Facebook, it’s not pretending to be any of that. There’s no privacy, no chats but if someone gets a mention in your blog, for example, they can add a link. It’s just that, on one site, you find all of it. For international theatre, there’s nothing like that out there. For international comedy and for the book world, there’s nothing like that out there.

“You can be a performer, a pundit, a critic, a production company, a physical venue and you just put everything up there. The thing to do is to work out the search patterns for it.”

“Presumably,” I said, “you don’t want me to mention that, though, because someone may steal the idea.”

“Well,” replied Nick, “I’ve been telling everyone about it and no-one’s done it so far, because it needs someone insane like you or me or Bob Slayer to do it.”

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Critics, Newspapers, Theatre

3 responses to “What is the point of professional critics? Would airheaded amateurs be better?

  1. How can anyone write about critics without referencing Behan’s description of them as like eunuchs in a harem. “They know how it’s done, they see it done nightly; what pisses them off is that they’re only Kate Copstick.”

    Something like that.

  2. A good critic (I’m thinking Steve Bennet) is hugely entertaining to read and also gives comedians ideas about how they can improve and develop their act. They’re also a machete of justice scything through the tangle of shit, deluded acts. I can’t describe the immense pleasure I get from reading a scathing excoriation of an act I know to be dogshit on toast.

  3. anna smith

    Sir Gideon Vein or Sir Francis Spalding did a brilliant, hilarious radio piece in the character of a critic,,,,I will try to find it for you.

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