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Newspaper reviews: why so mediocre?


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#1 Kevin Ng

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 07:09 AM

Originally posted by Alexandra
a midsized review is 12 inches, or about 500 words -- a daily writer is ON A DEADLINE.  You have to write those 500 words in about an hour; sometimes you have until about noon the next day


In Hong Kong, the South China Morning Post nowadays requires on-the-night reviews for the significant shows to be published the following day. I normally have to write a review of no more than 350 words and file it before midnight. Fortunately I live not far from the Hong Kong Cultural Centre where the major performances take place.

#2 Alexandra

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Posted 22 September 2002 - 07:44 AM

It would be a wonderful experiment to turn in that Thompson review to a handful of the arts editors at the major newspapers and see what they'd do with it :) I don't think it would be published today -- even though there surely are people capable of writing on that level -- because it wouldn't pass the mass market test.

I think Paul has hit on the nub of the problem, that arts coverage was once written with the expectation that it would be read by the people who were interested in it. I write from the perspective of a daily critic, who's lived through the paper price hike that Paul mentioned and has seen space given to dance tank. We very rarely cover cast changes any more, and the idea is, well, only 2000 people saw it -- of course, much much less than that for experimental dance -- so we just can't give as much space to it as, say, "Fear Factor," which is watched by millions.


The notion that Everyone must be interested in every piece that is written is noxious, I think. The critic has always functioned, at least partly, in the way the medieval troubadour functioned. S/he has access to the arts of the day in a way that ordinary people -- even ordinary princes :) -- didn't, and one of the roles is to say "You've never heard of this person, but what he's doing is very interesting, let me tell you about it." Or, conversely, "I know you all think this new play/ballet/opera/symphony is the finest thing going, but it's about ten levels below and 20 years behind what they're doing in Ruritania this season."

The space/audience problem doesn't answer all the complaints about daily critics -- one can be ignorant, unjust, or corrupt no matter what the space :) -- but it's part of it. Another part -- and it's a big one -- is that the Pundit Class, the supposed elite/intelligentsia that runs newspapers today could care a fig about the arts. If it ain't Britney, they don't want to know. This is a huge change in our culture, and if I were running educational outreach programs I'd spend some time educating the future editors of America.

Another problem today is that there are so few papers, and many of the papers don't cover arts criticism -- because, like, you know, who cares? I the hell don't, as an editor might say. Criticism of several decades ago was more robust -- decidedly different opinions, clearly expressed, so you could evaluate the point of view. I wouldn't object to a critic saying, "Oh, finally. None of those silly Swan Lakes, but some really good cutting edge stuff" if there were someone else saying, "Why is a ballet company doing soccer this season?" I think the bottom line is that we all judge a critic by whether we agree with what s/he says or not, and how it's said is, for most people, less of a concern.

(And thank you, Paul, for your comment about my magazines. One of the pleasures of publishing them is precisely that -- we can write for people who are interested and knowledgeable about dance.)

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 22 September 2002 - 09:16 AM

Susan, I take your point -- it's always good to be as specific as possible -- but if Temin had reviewed "Cleopatra" previously -- and negatively -- calling it a "dud" in a subsequent review would be common practice. With limited space, one can't rehash things too much, and also, to take a sentence to say why "Cleopatra" was a dud would derail the review, take it in another direction. I realize this isn't useful to someone who hasn't seen "Cleopatra," but there is just so much one can do in 500 words. (The same complaint can be, and often is, raised about second or third night reviews, which generally discuss the performances at the expense of the production, which was reviewed opening night. People who only see that subsequent performance might want to read a review of the production -- it's new to them -- but practice dictates otherwise, so a shorthand phrase -- the handsome, new "Swan Lake," or the ludicrously rethought production, etc -- has to suffice.)

I make these comments not to defend Temin, or any critic, but to try to explain why certain things are done the way they are. Newspaper reviews can't be long, thoughtful essays covering every aspect of the performance.

#4 Alexandra

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Posted 23 September 2002 - 04:56 PM

The Phoenix isn't a daily, though, nor a general interest publication. In addition to the fact that a daily critic has to write for a general audience -- no use of technical terms, use only language and descriptions that anyone picking up a daily newspaper and reading a dance review for the first time would understand -- and has little space -- a midsized review is 12 inches, or about 500 words -- a daily writer is ON A DEADLINE. You have to write those 500 words in about an hour; sometimes you have until about noon the next day, but not the week or month that magazine writers have. (Historical note: some British critics -- and perhaps those elsewhere -- were famous for running out of the theater and dictating their review into a phone.)

Watermill, where do you get the idea that critics make a living writing dance criticism :) Very few are full-time staff people. Some are part-time, but most have a freelance relationship with the paper and are paid by the piece.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 23 September 2002 - 07:35 PM

Watermill, I doubt I'm the best person to ask. I was brought up in a home where the last question one asked was "how much money will I make if I do this?" I started writing because I was asked. As for the power, my first 10 years of writing, I was happiest writing Friday nights because those reviews only appeared in a relatively few papers Saturday morning and would not be "replated" in Monday's edition. I've definitely had situations where I've thought, I have to write about that, because I felt so strongly, positively or negatively, but never "Aha! I have power and can tell them all where to go," and I'm quite sure my friends who are critics aren't on power trips, either. I've also been very lucky to write for a paper that does not pressure writers to be either negative or positive.

I think writers write because they have to. I do think they write because they love dance, and that's often why they sound "mean." I'm not trying to say that critics are selfless saints, by any means, and I'd agree that there are mediocre reviews, and there are critics who are less informed and less knowledgeable than others.

Back to a point Susan B made at the beginning of this thread, about one one critic's "personal preference replacing what a good review should be," I think that's a good point. I also agree with Nanatchka that reviews are supposed to be personal opinions, but there's a balancing act.

#6 Alexandra

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 09:33 AM

This is purely a personal response, but it was years before it dawned on me that anybody read what I wrote. I thought only the people I knew read it -- and I was quite happy with that thought. (Dancers routinely say when interviewed that they never read reviews, and I believed that. Hah!) I think, even before I was conscious of it, I was writing to make a record. That's communication, in a way, but not in the direct "I've just seen something wonderful and you've got to go too!" sense of things.

On critics and power, there's a book about New York theater critics called, "The Critics," in which the author (whose name I forget) wrote about Clive Barnes, saying that when he first came to the Times he was very confident and had very strong opinions. He panned one play and it closed, and those connected with the play blamed him -- I'm writing all this from a 20-year old memory, so please, if anyone knows more and I've got something wrong, correct it. They picketed the Times with signs like, "Go home, Limey bastard." The author felt that there had been a loss of confidence in Barnes's writing after that time, that he pulled his punches.

I sympathized with that, which I read before I had any idea I'd be a critic. I would not like to have the power to shut down a show. If you think you have that power, I think it would change the writing, one way or another.

#7 Alexandra

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 02:54 PM

Reading old reviews -- I haven't studied them, but just judging from the ones I've read over the years -- I've read some of seem to be historical periods. Some of the great critics -- Gautier, Shaw -- are defnitely opinion writers, commentators. In the 1940s and '50s in this country, though, many of the reviews I've read are very strictly news articles. So and so danced the pas de trois, a debut. This is the choreographer's background. An adjective or two about the ballerina. This may be a reflection of the newspaper's attitude towards dance -- and in some cases, though not all, the writer's knowledge about it. But I think there was a sense that this was a news item, covering an event that happened, in the way one would cover a robbery or a baseball game. More recently, I think newspapers have taken the approach that criticism is opinion. There was a rebellion against this within the ranks of dance critics in the 1970s, during the minimalist period of modern dance. Just describe. Who am I to make a judgment? Criticism must be objective. So I think there are different schools. (I'm of the criticism is opinion school, btw. :) )

#8 dirac

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Posted 20 September 2002 - 10:38 AM

We've had threads on this topic before, although I don't have time to pull any up right now. A critic's tone and approach is very much conditioned by his audience. A writer for a regional paper, who may be the only person reviewing the performance, is not going to sound like, say, Acocella in The New Yorker. (He also doesn't have as much space. ) So often there's a lot of cultural and local boosterism involved. It's not like London, where you have half a dozen critics weighing in, and so there's a lot more freedom for differences of opinion and toughmindedness.

I don't want to make too many excuses, however. If the local company's leadership is in lousy shape, the critic is duty bound to say so. However, in some places that might put his job in jeopardy.

#9 dirac

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Posted 23 September 2002 - 03:05 PM

What Nanatchka said.


Here's the link to the Boston Phoenix site. Marcia B. Siegel also covers dance -- I think she's first string, Gantz is second. I enjoy both of them:


http://www.bostonphoenix.com/

#10 dirac

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 09:21 AM

It was Nora Kaye and Markova. Perfectly understandable error two dark ladies with aquiline profiles, but. I remember reading somewhere that the boo-boo preyed on Denby for years, poor man.


Watermill's points about power can apply to critics of the arts, which is not to say that it always does. I think that, finally, people do write to be read. You're trying to communicate something to somebody, even if the only thing you're doing at the moment is working out your thoughts on paper for yourself.

#11 Nanatchka

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Posted 22 September 2002 - 10:53 AM

[QUOTE]Originally posted by SusanB
[B]Shockingly, her editor has permitted her personal preferences to replace what I beleive genuine reviews to be.

But that's what reviews are. One person's point of view. You might say "This isn't my cup of tea but they did it well," but you cannot make yourself like something. You can say, "The audience gave X a rousing ovation," a handy ruse , but then you are reviewing the house, not the performance, and besides, in the end you only sound snotty and set yourself apart.( "While it appealed to many....") A genuine review is the genuine opinion of the writer. Since you know you disagree with the Globe critic, you can read her and know you would, had you been there, thought otherwise.

#12 Nanatchka

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 02:47 PM

"Criticism" falls under the definition of "personal opinion, " like an editorial or op-ed columnist, etc. A "feature" article falls into the news category. Either should be factually correct, but opnions are not facts. Thus a critic cannot be sued for hating something--"negative" criticism is not thus considered libel. This distinction is important to lawyers....

#13 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 21 September 2002 - 10:26 AM

On the subject of writing - borrowing from myself on the thread about the new Graeme Murphy "Swan Lake" at Australian Ballet:

charge a tariff to all writers who wish to use the words "firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary" in any dance review. This tariff should rise exponentially with each usage. Finally, any writer who uses those words should be forced to explain, in detail, exactly what was firmly rooted in the classical vocabulary and why. If s/he cant, double tariff.


In defense of writers in the dailies and with tight space limitations, though, sometimes a cliche is the only way to bring the point home in under 300 words or by a midnight press run. I just happen to be profoundly sick of that one, which is used for everyone from Nacho Duato to Mark Morris, from people who trained as ballet dancers to people who took a year of ballet when they were a kid. I'm waiting to hear it about Michael Flatley.

#14 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 23 September 2002 - 06:03 PM

Actually, for the heck of it, one day if you have the time as an exercise, try thinking through or even writing a review of a given performance at several targeted lengths.

A blurb of 100 words. (That's one long paragraph)

A column of 500. (4-5 long paragraphs)

An article at 1200-1500 words

An in depth article at 3,000

Amazingly enough, the first dance article I ever published was almost 14,000 words. I'm amazed it was published much as written.

I learned from having to write these different lengths that I'm long-winded by nature (that, or over-cautious. A lot of word-count is spent backing up assertions and allowing for exceptions to them). For me, it took more experience to be brief.

#15 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 24 September 2002 - 09:59 AM

Another personal response - I started writing as propaganda (hopefully this is less sinister than it sounds!) When I talked with people about dance performances, I felt like there was a real issue for many in being able to "tell the dancer from the dance". Much of my writing is about that distinction. Maybe it was about power; I was hoping to get people to look at dance the way I did, or at least explain to them why I looked at it that way.


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