When I was younger and trying to find any paying writing job I could, I worked for a brief time first as a book reviewer (for one publication) and later as a restaurant reviewer (for another publication entirely). I enjoyed both gigs, each for its own reasons — although in retrospect, what I remember most is that they paid so little, I almost felt as if I was losing money by doing them. You can probably find samples of my work in both endeavors, if you Google hard enough… but I ask that if you read what I wrote, you do so with kindness and generosity. I was writing, as they say, out of my comfort zone.
Funny that I should ask for kindness and generosity, because I’m not sure I had much of either when I was crafting my reviews. I’m not proud of this, mind you. There’s a line about dumplings that tasted like racquetballs, somewhere out there on the internet, that I very much wish I could un-publish. There was one savage review of a work of insufferably shallow rock criticism that… but I can’t even think about it. Suffice it to say that I was all-too-rarely positive in my work… and when I was negative, I could occasionally be very negative.
I like to believe that if I’d embraced criticism as a genre, in time I would have addressed this (fairly significant) flaw in my approach. I’m not saying I would have praised either the rubbery dumplings or the vapid prose, but I might not have been so vicious in eviscerating them… or perhaps I wouldn’t have chosen to review them in the first place. I honestly have no idea, though; I didn’t have time to develop a critical vocabulary, to get nuanced in my thinking, to fine-tune my methods of assessment. After a year of toiling at each endeavor, I gave up and moved on.
Of late I’ve been noting a great deal of anger toward a few theater critics around the country. The two fellows (they’re both men) who come readily to mind are Charles Isherwood of the New York Times and Peter Marks of the Washington Post. I won’t re-hash the recent criticisms of their work, even though I agree with them, because they aren’t germane to my point. I’ll say instead that the controversial reviews they’ve published suggest that neither man shares my theatrical preferences.
(Did you see that? I offered criticism, and I did it at least somewhat kindly; perhaps I have learned something after all.)
The thing is: I happen to have spoken with one of those two critics — Peter Marks — on a small handful of occasions. He’s interviewed me, and he’s written both positively and critically about my work, and he’s been very generous with his time and attention — and the one clear thing that my time in his company has made clear to me is that whether I agree with him or not, I cannot question his sincere love of theater, his immense knowledge of the art form, and his dedication to playing an immensely difficult role in the DC theater ecosystem. He takes his profession seriously — far more so than I ever did — and that’s at least worthy of respect.
But this blog post isn’t a commentary on Peter Marks. It’s a commentary on [Name of Theater Critic Redacted]. No, I’m not trying to hold back on skewering someone publicly — I’m trying to hold back on skewering several critics publicly; it’s that kindness thing again. [Name of Theater Critic Redacted] doesn’t bring nearly enough passion, knowledge, and smarts to bear on the task of criticism. The reviews that [Name of Theater Critic Redacted] publishes are poorly-written, logically inconsistent, under-argued, and just plain petty. I have no idea how they make it into past whatever gate-keepers — typically, but not always, blog editors — are supposed to be editing them, unless I consider the possibility that those gate-keepers have even less keen critical and/or literary minds. And this, I would like to suggest, is even worse than a review I happen to disagree with.
When you disagree with someone you respect — as I have done of late with Peter Marks — you can at least consider the possibility of rational discourse between us: differing personal perspectives on theater informing a debate about what’s to be preferred on stage, what success looks like, which artistic decisions ought to be praised. You might learn something, he might learn something… and the conversation enriches us all.
When you disagree with a critic you don’t respect like [Name of Theater Critic Redacted], by contrast, there’s no possibility for dialogue or learning. You might as well shout into the wind, rather than try to frame an intelligent response to a review. They don’t have what it takes to understand why what they’ve written falls short. And if they’ve written something positive, it reads like a low-fat dessert: vaguely sweet, still sort of bad for you, and ultimately unsatisfying.