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Jowitt's exit from the VIllage Voice


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#1 Ray

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 04:54 AM

A recent posting from Dance/USA, a national dance service organization, details the departure of Deborah Jowitt from the Village Voice after 40 years. What's interesting is that Jowitt, in a letter to the Dance Critics Association, candidly cites having “irreconcilable artistic differences” with Brian Parks, her editor at the Voice; what's even more interesting is that Park responds to Jowitt's letter (which is also included in the link above) with equal candor. His reply brings up issues that I hope can spur a larger conversation here; here's an excerpt from Parks:

"After editing [Jowitt] for some time now, and reading her for years before that, I’d become frustrated that Deborah’s dance reviews were almost all generally positive write-ups of the shows she was covering. (This has been an issue for many people here at the paper, over many years.) There were virtually no negative reviews. But of course all of us in arts journalism know that every arts field has all sorts of bad or mediocre work going on, many times by established figures and in prominent venues. This work needs to be addressed and challenged by a paper’s critics, just as the good work needs to be saluted. That’s part of a newspaper’s vigorous critical practice, and what The Village Voice does in all the rest of its arts coverage, from the sections I handle, through our film and music sections. The dance reviews have not been doing this."

I have mixed feelings about this series of events. On the one hand, I never get the sense that DJ's long-established practice of reviewing what she thinks she can analyze positively is done out of a sense of boosterism; she's consistently thoughtful and sensitive and, needless to say, a lucid writer who has enriched the terrain (would that more writers felt her sense of critical responsibility to the field). On the other hand, however, another part of me, agrees wholeheartedly with Parks: a critic must provide the reader an honest picture of what's going on field-wide; negative criticism can be part of a constructive learning process for artists, presenters, funders, and viewers. Part of my frustration in reading positive reviews, especially in smaller cities, is that they're terribly uninformed and go straight to the heads of the performers/creators being reviewed; they feed a "with us or against us" mentality just as much as vituperative or ad hominem attack-reviews. SO: without necessarily evaluating Jowitt's writing, what do others think about this issue, about the larger ideas behind Parks's policy? What illumination can a reviewer bring by being positively engaged with a work? Is a positive yet objective review harder to write? Is it easier to identify faults? Which do we like to read more? Should critics' practice be quantified in the way Parks seems to be doing with Jowitt?

#2 papeetepatrick

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 07:47 AM

Thoughtful post, very good. I had not thought that about Jowitt, but I also can't say, since I have read her through the years, but not consistently for some time. This practice of 'always writing positive reviews' I never noticed on my own except with former NYTimes film critic Janet Maslin, who seemed afraid to say anything even about the most obviously frivolous products. So just to stick to your topic, I did find that Maslin's reviews became useless to me after I identified (or thought I did from reading them nearly every day for some years) a pattern that I thought very weak. I do recall one negative review that I thought was not only one I disagreed with, but was factually inaccurate, and I thought it was so off I almost didn't check out the film, which was one that did happen to have resonance with me, as had the book it was based on (script written by the novelist.)

Otoh, it's the Voice itself here that comes into play. I don't see how they're even in business, and by the look of the paper edition, they barely are: I had need of reading some of their book reviewers right now for possible personal contact, which I haven't done yet; but I picked up the paper for 3 weeks, and it's about 10% the volume it was even 3 years ago. There is no political writing at all, and as recently as 2004, all the longtime well-known journalists, were still there. It was in the following year that all these began to be fired, with the acquisition by New Times Media. From Wiki:

Since being acquired by New Times Media in 2005, the publication's key personnel have changed and the content has become increasingly mainstream. The Voice is now managed by two journalists from Phoenix, Arizona. Some New York media critics perceive a loss of the paper's original iconoclastic, bohemian spirit.[12][13]

In April 2006, the Voice dismissed music editor Chuck Eddy.[14] Four months later the newspaper fired longtime music critic Robert Christgau. In January 2007, the newspaper fired sex columnist and erotica author Rachel Kramer Bussel; long-term creative director Ted Keller, art director Minh Oung, fashion columnist Lynn Yeager and Deputy Art Director LD Beghtol were laid off/fired soon after.


Nat Hentoff is not there, Sidney Schanburg and Richard Goldstein were fired, Wayne Barrett was gone by last fall, and the wiki article also said something about 'unstable since the acquisition by New Times in 2005'. I'll say. I don't even consider the paper to exist, so although I don't know, I'm not sure what an editor there who's talking about the release of a dance critic is saying between the lines. The ad volume is now so tiny in the real estate sections, you can't even believe that that was once the major place for finding your apt. Craigslist put an end to that, but it has to have been sometime in the last few years that all the in-depth writing disappeared.

But you bring up a good point, even if any decisions by Voice editors may not be anything more than a starting point, because he happened to say it--I may or may not be correct not to take him literally. So I do think too many positive reviews is weirdly suspect, I just noticed it in big papers the one time I described, and I think it leads to mediocrity being given the green light (I agree with you about the 'uninformedness' in lots of smaller papers, but it's definitely spread to the big ones too, and that I don't think Jowitt is guilty of, I would tend to go along with your assessment of 'boosterism' regarding her. I always have thought she was really good). Not that I think a number of other critics, including at the Times, haven't done that, and in some cases, it's because of not doing the kind of homework that critics used to seem to do more (reading the novel that's been adapted to a film, for example, in one case I wrote about by Stephen Holden--at least Janet Maslin had read the book she thought had been thinly adapted.)

#3 Ray

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 08:09 AM

But you bring up a good point, even if any decisions by Voice editors may not be anything more than a starting point, because he happened to say it--I may or may not be correct not to take him literally.


Yes, I thought of this--what I identify perhaps too hastily as Parks's "candor" appears as something stranger under scrutiny. I mean, does Parks really expect someone who's been writing for 40 years to change her method and style? He doesn't acknowledge anything positive about her method, and I think in her case there is--again, her "positive" choices seem to be (40 years of evidence!) a result of careful thought and reflection. In other words, there could be room for an idiosyncratic choice, especially in this case. But as you suggest, it's amazing she's been there as long as she has, considering all who have fallen behind her, including her terrific editor Elizabeth Zimmer.

#4 dirac

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 02:26 PM

Jowitt will not be doing regular reviews, but she will still be writing for the paper. The Voice has been struggling in the wake of the Internet revolution, like many print publications, and like most of those publications with the exception of the NY Times it has cut back drastically on dance coverage. (New York magazine dropped its regular dance reviewing entirely.)

It is hard to know what to think about this situation since so often in these matters there are other things going on behind the scenes that aren’t part of the official explanations from either side. Jowitt has been at the Voice for forty years, an excellent run for any critic, and often writers choose to move on for their own reasons after such a length of time. Obviously that isn’t true in this case, but a changing of the guard when a new(er) editor comes in is also common. Personal chemistry comes in play, and different views of where the publication is going.

Which is not to say that the difference of opinion expressed here isn’t genuine. It seems to me that both sides have a point. Jowitt is a fine writer who can’t be expected to change her approach at this late date. Her style has some wonderful qualities and I find it’s generally possible to suss out when she really doesn’t like something. I don’t see that her approach is necessarily superior to someone who comes out forthrightly to say “ it stinks.” (I understand that Clement Crisp’s willingness to be tart and vivid in such cases has helped him cling to his perch.)

The critics in smaller media markets face a different set of issues. A New York critic can be sharp in the knowledge that there are a few other voices out there who will be listened to and may disagree, but most cities have only one paper and its critic is the only game in town save for what gets on the Internet. So the stakes are much higher. One would never condone outright mindless boosterism, but I would certainly see a need to be more careful, avoid harshness unless the need is very great, and provide encouragement when possible where local arts associations are concerned, while honoring the obligation to be honest to one's readers. Not an easy task.

#5 bart

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 05:24 PM

And then there's Jowitt's biography of Jerome Robbins -- well-researched, well-written, and complex in its approach to a complicated artist. I wonder whether Jowitt has any other large-scale projects in the works.

#6 Quiggin

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Posted 09 June 2011 - 08:16 PM

I think writing about the downtown dance scene which is so small would be very difficult - and quite different from reviewing say downtown theater. It would have to be practiced obliquely and diplomatically. And you have the task of educating your audience to the specialized vocabularies (subtle sometimes to the point of being bare whispers of vocabularies) of each dance company.

The Village Voice used to be fat with classified advertising before Craigslist came on the scene. And "Playbor" - writing labor for free, as if "play" - that Huffington Post uses in their business model has really changed the field.

#7 Stage Right

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Posted 27 November 2011 - 04:00 PM

I also have mixed feelings about this situation. I took a course in dance criticism with Deborah Jowitt at NYU a long time ago (1980s). She had a definite philosophy about writing dance criticism. However, from my experience, I would not say that her philosophy was only to review things she liked. Rather, as she expressed it to us, it was to not 'judge' a performance as good or bad, but rather to 'describe what we saw', and let the reader take it from there. (My apologies to Ms. Jowitt if I am misstating this: it's a long time ago now, but since I had to write a lot of reviews in that class, and got a good grade Posted Image, I believe this to be an accurate representation of her approach.) Although in principle I liked the philosophy, and I think it was helpful in learning how to write about dance, I do feel it had definite drawbacks, one of which is that it could be a bit dull, and doesn't fully help the reader to decide whether or not they might enjoy seeing a performance--especially of the small dance concerts in the downtown scene that Jowitt usually wrote about. When I moved away from NYC I stopped reading the Voice, and thus Jowitt's reviews. I do hope that this decision was a mutual one, as she is a wonderful presence in the dance world, and deserves much respect for her writing and other activities.

#8 dirac

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Posted 08 December 2011 - 06:27 PM

Although in principle I liked the philosophy, and I think it was helpful in learning how to write about dance, I do feel it had definite drawbacks, one of which is that it could be a bit dull, and doesn't fully help the reader to decide whether or not they might enjoy seeing a performance--especially of the small dance concerts in the downtown scene that Jowitt usually wrote about.


That's a good point, Stage Right. A reviewer/critic also has to consider the bread-and-butter interests of the reader who wants to know how to spend his money, I suppose.

#9 Ray

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Posted 10 December 2011 - 04:16 AM


Although in principle I liked the philosophy, and I think it was helpful in learning how to write about dance, I do feel it had definite drawbacks, one of which is that it could be a bit dull, and doesn't fully help the reader to decide whether or not they might enjoy seeing a performance--especially of the small dance concerts in the downtown scene that Jowitt usually wrote about.


That's a good point, Stage Right. A reviewer/critic also has to consider the bread-and-butter interests of the reader who wants to know how to spend his money, I suppose.


I think this ethos has hurt her on the "other end" of audiences too, those who read her longer or scholarly works. Her substantial biography of Jerome Robbins, for instance, was criticized for not venturing a strong claim or thesis, for refusing to connect dots. Again, I can imagine that this was probably motivated by of strong sense that the material should speak for itself, and that the writer's job is just to provide context and "thick description." I don't think it does, so I like those critics agree that she should be more argumentative, and could "take a stand." After all those years of dance viewing, she's earned the chops to be audacious.

#10 dirac

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Posted 13 December 2011 - 03:47 PM

I think this ethos has hurt her on the "other end" of audiences too, those who read her longer or scholarly works. Her substantial biography of Jerome Robbins, for instance, was criticized for not venturing a strong claim or thesis, for refusing to connect dots. Again, I can imagine that this was probably motivated by of strong sense that the material should speak for itself, and that the writer's job is just to provide context and "thick description." I don't think it does, so I like those critics agree that she should be more argumentative, and could "take a stand." After all those years of dance viewing, she's earned the chops to be audacious.


It could well be that her approach is also reflected in the biography, which I did find heavy going. (I also thought she might have had a bit too much material to chew - sometimes access to "the papers" isn't as big a plus as you'd think.)


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