22 March 2009

On Reviewing

It is the worst-kept secret in journalism that reviewing is not reporting but personal-opinion writing. It’s a secret because neither reviewers nor their publications acknowledge it. Many reviewers insist that it is, in fact, reporting. It’s badly kept because readers only need to compare several reviews of the same event--say a play--with each other and with their own perceptions to recognize that this is so. Most readers don’t take the trouble to do this, I imagine, essentially putting out of mind reviews with which they don’t agree, and remembering only those with which they concur. (The converse of this are the spectators who rail at reviews that contradict their own responses, as if the reviewers had no right to different opinions.)

Before I go any further here, let me make a distinction some of us recognize--that between “critic” and “reviewer.” I am differentiating between dramatic or literary criticism and performance reviewing. Critics of dramatic literature are not reporters, either, but they make little pretense to being so. Most writers or broadcasters of daily notices about current theatrical productions, according to several surveys and studies, consider themselves reporters, though some think of themselves as practitioners of the particular art of criticism. (Some others think of themselves as consumer reporters.) Almost none openly label themselves opinion columnists like the writers who appear on op-ed pages of newspapers.

(I should acknowledge, in the interest of full disclosure, that I once published an essay called "The Power of the Reviewer: Myth or Fact?" [Theatre History Studies 18 (June 1998): 13-38].)

Reviewers, however, continue for the most part to present their opinions as if they are substantiated statements, disguising the individual nature of their pronouncements by the grammatical dodge of never (or at least very seldom) using first-person pronouns. The difference is that responses such as “I found the play confusing” or “The ending choked me up”--acknowledging that others may have reacted differently--become statements like “The play is confusing” and “The ending is emotionally affecting.” These last statements sound universal, as if everyone agrees and the reviewers have some special sources that provide data on how the whole audience reacted to what they saw--even that they all saw the same thing, which is not always true in live performances.

When I was writing regular reviews, the truth of this dichotomy was driven home for me and I continue to see it when I go to the theater. Writing about performances which were also reviewed by other reviewers made me acutely aware of the personal nature of what reviewers respond to and write about. It isn't just the difference in overall evaluation--good vs. bad; praise vs. pan--that’s fairly obvious. More revealing are the details we note and how we react to them. In a number of recent notices, reviewers have remarked on aspects of a production that I also observed. We frequently reacted very differently to them. I would find a musical score appropriately supportive of a scene--one reviewer would find it intrusive; I would note a costume that seemed anachronistic--someone else would see it as true to the character. In some cases, I might even have agreed with a reviewer that a hairstyle or line reading was out of place, but decided the apparent error wasn't worth mentioning in the face of other, more significant production elements. The reviewer had raised it as a seriously damaging episode.

When I published, I consistently tried to phrase my evaluations as expressions of what I saw and what happened to me, not necessarily what anyone else in the audience may have experienced. (It is unfortunate that editors often shifted my unabashed first-person writing into third- or second-person, making my reactions sound like universal judgments, too. I kept trying.) I have even admitted when I didn't understand a play, suggesting that others with different sensitivities might tune in where I couldn't. It’s simply that I don’t feel comfortable dismissing something I haven’t understood--I don’t know everything, after all, and try to be honest enough to admit it in print.

Honesty is really the kernel of the matter. I feel it’s dishonest to pretend, even only grammatically, that I can speak for other spectators. What I can do is describe my own perceptions, occasionally finding evidence of how others feel about what we've seen. What I hope is that my readers will form some picture of what I saw and make their own decisions regarding their own interest in it. I can’t tell people I don’t know, what they’ll think or feel simply because I thought or felt a certain way.

For this reason I advocate not only forthright first-person reviewing, but descriptive reviewing rather than purely evaluative. No description is really judgment-free, but if I tell you what I saw, you can decide whether you want to pay to see it, too. That’s more honest than telling you whether or not I think you should see it. But for this to work, I have to be up front that I'm only speaking for myself, the only person to whose reactions I have ready access.

Why don’t reviewers write in grammatical first-person when all along they’re presenting subjective, first-person responses? There are certainly many reasons, but among them are probably tradition, vanity, and entrenched editorial policy. Reviews have always been written this way, and only a few reviewers write in first person regularly. When I studied criticism many years ago, we read reviewers from G. B. Shaw to George Jean Nathan to John Simon. (That’s how long ago it was—Simon was as current as we could get!) Most wrote as if they were speaking for the whole world. No one questioned this phenomenon. I never knew there was an alternative until, years later, I encountered people like Kate Davy, Marcia Segal, and the late Michael Kirby who advocated various forms of non-judgmental reviewing. (Davy’s and Segal’s reviews are published in many periodicals; the pertinent essay by Kirby is “Criticism: Four Faults” [The Drama Review 18.4 (T63 - Dec. 1974): 59-68].) Though some, Kirby most particularly, abjure any kind of judgment in reviews, I don’t feel we must go that far. It’s fair to present an opinion--as long as everyone knows that’s what it is.

What I propose, along the lines of Segal’s dance reviewing, is that reviewers must acknowledge that we are offering our own, individual responses to performances and provide the descriptive evidence to support those responses. Even if we can’t use the grammatical first person because of editorial style, we can acknowledge, as Segal usually does, that what we are not doing is expounding a universal assessment which we somehow have received from on high. Let reviewers be honest with their readers and the prospective audiences they’re trying to reach. After all, your response is really no less legitimate than mine--who’s to say which one’s right? Let’s leave pontificating to the guy in the white yarmulke.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the best pieces on reviewing that I've ever read. I should point out that Shaw emphatically agrees with you - he NEVER adopts the impersonal tone, and always makes it clear that these are HIS opinions.