If you’re looking for critical consensus, you won’t find much of it in the new book The Critics Say…: 57 Theater Reviewers in New York and Beyond Discuss Their Craft and Its Future (McFarland & Company, $35). That’s because the critics interviewed for the book by Matt Windman, himself a critic, have a wide variety of opinions about what it is they do, how they do it, why they do it and whether it will continue to be done.
Rather than devote a chapter to each critic, Windman organizes the book topically, so that even while the interviews were discrete, the critics’ thoughts begin to engage with one another on subjects from “Why We Exist” to “Regrets and Advice” through devised interplay. That’s useful, because transcribed speech often isn’t compelling to read, so by extracting themes, Windman is constantly changing up who is “speaking” at any given moment, creating rather more of a narrative than would otherwise be the case. Windman certainly threw out a wide net and reeled in many of the biggest fish, including both Ben Brantley and Charles Isherwood from The New York Times.
If you go looking for gossip and backbiting in the book, you won’t find a great deal of it. Yes, Isherwood chides “those crazy queens on All That Chat,” and Brantley, who doesn’t use social media opines that it is “largely about” self-promotion. But the book is much more concerned with a sober-sided consideration of the place of the critic in the arts and journalism culture of today, and it provides a strong primer in the thoughts of those who practice criticism – or at the least what they’re willing to share on the record. Oh, there is a brief chapter devoted entirely to Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, but even there, the critics use the show as a pretext for discussing the power of critics, or lack thereof, in today’s society.
The book contains countless revealing insights into the minds of the people who shape public opinion of theatre, available almost by opening the book randomly to any page at all. A few choice thoughts:
“The critic is part of the theatre community, but he is the annoying guy at the part who’s telling everybody, ‘You look like shit.’” – Rob Weinert-Kendt, editor of American Theatre
“I tell students it’s a marvelous hobby, but I do not encourage them to pursue it as a career.” – Alexis Soloski, The New York Times, on advice to aspiring critics
“When I was on the Obies committee, I was told (though I think this was tongue-in-cheek) that the standard for conflict of interest is whether you slept with the person. Mine is that I can’t have been invited to their birthday party.” – Helen Shaw, Time Out New York
“One of the hardest critical jobs is the correct appropriation of praise and blame. Did this actor do this? Was it a directing choice? Did this flow from the play? Was the director absolutely doing that? A critic does not see the production process. To some degree the critic is trying to imbue the process.” – Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
“If there weren’t critics, people would have to depend on advertising. And advertising, by definition, almost always lies…” – John Simon, Westchester Guardian
Having begun my career as a publicist, albeit one who worked mostly in Connecticut, which short stays in Philadelphia and New York, I’ve had the occasion to know a great many critics, and the majority of the individuals in the book I know at least from reading, many from professional interactions and a few I consider friends. I’ve had the chance to discuss, debate and sometimes profoundly disagree with some of the critics in the book. Consequently, I can say that they come across just as they have across telephone line, social media and even a dinner table. Because of the timing of the book in 2016, I do find myself missing the presence of some of the critics with whom I worked most directly, and spoke with most often, from whom I learned so much, all of whom have now passed away: Mel Gussow of The New York Times, Howard Kissel of the New York Daily News and Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press.
While their absence is inevitable, there are a few major voices missing from the book, for reasons unknowable. While print may be shrinking or even dying, and online reviews are now widely accessible, making more criticism available to more readers than ever before, Mark Kennedy’s voice at the Associated Press has significant amplification and reach, through the many outlets that carry AP copy; he’s not in the book. On the west coast, which is generally underrepresented in the critical mix of the book, Charles McNulty at the Los Angeles Times is a major and influential writer about theatre not only in Los Angeles, but frequently in San Diego and New York as well. And Michael Feingold, the long-time – and once again – critic at the Village Voice has a historical perspective that is unfortunately not heard.
There’s one other voice I wish were included, that of Frank Rich, the former theatre critic of The New York Times, who is named multiple times in the book. Frank, unlike Gussow, Kissel and Kuchwara, is still with us, having gone on to write for the editorial pages of the Times and now as a political columnist for New York magazine (as well as being an executive producer of the TV series Veep). While his days as a designated critic may be gone, theatre has remained a part of Frank’s writing in the two decades since he left his post. His insight would have only added value to Windman’s book.
The book is not wholly New York-centric, with critics from the Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Toronto Star and Austin Chronicle included, but it certainly skews to the America’s northeast. So while it’s problematic to draw any definitive conclusions about the critical community from the 57 critics represented, it’s worth noting that there are only nine female critics among the 57, and only two critics within – to the best of my knowledge – who are persons of color, highlighting the lack of gender and racial diversity in the critical ranks overall. The interviews don’t skirt this fact (though one critic mistakenly declares that Hilton Als is the only black theatre critic anywhere), but as an area of inquiry, discussion of how the lack diversity among critics affects audiences and artists is limited. It seems a missed opportunity.
Have I spent too much time talking about what I miss, rather than what’s in The Critics Say? I am perhaps guilty of doing so, but only because I have had the privilege of such conversations throughout my career and the book prompts me to want to ask yet more questions, both with the people in the book and those who aren’t. But that’s where Windman’s effort pays off, in assembling provocative conversations with people inaccessible to most readers and creating a strong platform for yet more discussion. In his preface, Windman cites two previous books that spoke with critics, from 1993 and 2004, but just as I miss hearing the opinions of those no longer with us and those who didn’t participate, perhaps this form of inquiry deserves to be undertaken once every decade or so, for the historical record, as criticism, theatre and the media continue to evolve.
Whatever the fate of theatre criticism is in the next ten years or the next hundred, The Critics Say is a worthy time capsule of where things are right now, and surely required reading in arts journalism and arts management classes. And for those you read theatre reviews and find yourself saying, “Who the hell wrote this?,” Windman’s book offers some answers about who did, and why.