04 November 2009

'The Art of Writing Reviews' by Kirk Woodward, Part 1

In June of this year, my friend Kirk Woodward published a book on reviewing. I’ve mentioned Kirk before on several occasions. He’s a playwright, composer, director, teacher, and actor (and, most recently, a “guest blogger” for ROT--see 5 October), and we went to college together back in the middle of the last century. When he announced the release of The Art of Writing Reviews, I approached it with trepidation because . . . What if I didn’t like it? What would I say to him? Or, just as terrifying, What if he dissed everything I had done when I wrote reviews. We’d never talked about this except in passing, so I had no idea what he thought about writing theater reviews (much less any other kind). How would I feel if Kirk’s ideas about writing good reviews were basically the opposite of what I’d been practicing? (As a matter of full disclosure, I don’t consider what I post on ROT to be reviews. Kirk says they come close to “criticism,” but I demur. I call them “play reports” and disobligate myself from all the conventions and restraints of proper reviewing. What I published in the ‘80s and ‘90s were reviews.)

Well, okay, none of that happened. In fact, I couldn’t have agreed more with just about everything my friend--a brilliant analyst and commentator, clearly--said about good review-writing. (Both Kirk and I share the notion that there’s a profound difference between reviewing and criticism and that what we’re talking about here and in Kirk’s book is reviewing. I’ll let you read The Art of Writing Reviews to get a full definition of the distinction.) But I’m not going to write a review of Kirk’s book or even critique it in general terms. What I’m going to do is have a sort of one-sided conversation with him by commenting on some of the things he’s said in Writing Reviews that jogged my mind as I read it. It made me think about all kinds of things. That's a good thing, I think: When I used to teach writing in college, I told my students that writing, especially essay-writing, was a sort of conversation between the writer and the reader(s). It's what an essay is supposed to do: make the reader think, look at something from a fresh angle, ask questions. In an extended version, the "reader" would write another essay in response (the other side of the conversation), then the original writer or another essayist would chime in, and so on. Books sometimes respond to other books, too (though the process is longer). Well, this is a perfect example of that, and this post will be my contribution to the conversation.

First, however, let me include a little about the book itself, to set the scene, so to speak. Here’s what the author, himself, says:

Considering how many reviews are written each day--for newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets, and, overwhelmingly, for the Internet--there is remarkably little written about the art of writing reviews itself.

This book considers the differences between reviews and criticism, and looks at the fundamental tasks of the reviewer: experiencing, describing, and evaluating. It examines some of the major problems, misconceptions, and bad habits involved in creating reviews, and discusses the structure of the review itself.

Finally, by placing reviewing in a larger context, the book becomes an exploration of the nature of art itself, and of our place in it.

As for anything more, I’ll address that as I come to it in my remarks here. Of course, to get the full impact, I strongly recommend reading the whole book (which is short, “an extended essay,” says Kirk--what I’d call a monograph). It’s chatty and easy to read--no academic language and little theatrical jargon--and only 61 pages long. You can read it in one sitting or, if you’re like me and impelled to make marginal notes and comments, maybe a couple of days’ sessions. You can order it or download it at http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272; it isn’t available from bookstores, Amazon.com, or BarnesandNoble.com (and I doubt it’s made it into many libraries yet). As Kirk suggests, the book has practical value for anyone who wants to write reviews, is already writing them, or is just interested in reviewing as “a form of writing.” There’s both sound advice and theoretical reflection in Writing Reviews and all of it’s worth reading, even if you end up disagreeing with Kirk and me.

As for my anticipatory trepidations, all I can say is that my first reaction was, Wow, what a good job! I’ve often copped to succumbing to Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. But that’s only for people I don’t like. When a friend does well, I’m thrilled! So, let me take up the conversation in medias res, as the lit folks say, and jump in. I’ll just follow along with Kirk’s structure and sound off along the way, step by step.

At the outset, Kirk remarks that there are no books and few articles on the art of reviewing--“How To’s,” as it were. He’s right, as it happens, but there are lots of courses and academic programs on the subject. Yale even offers a DFA in criticism, I believe. (Jonathan Kalb of the Village Voice is a graduate of the YSD program.) What do they use for texts and reading materials? (In my one “criticism” class at Rutgers, where I got an MFA, we mostly read other reviewers--few works "on" reviewing.) There are a few articles by reviewers on reviewing: an entire issue of Yale/Theatre (the predecessor to Theater), "American Drama Criticism" (vol. 4, # 2, Spring 1973) contains essays by Stanley Kauffmann, Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein, and Martin Gottfried, among others; the September 2001 issue of American Theatre (Vol. 18, # 7) includes eight essays on "Understanding Critics" by reviewers like Frank Rich and Kalb. A more theoretical piece, which proposes a different approach to reviewing than is commonly practiced, is Michael Kirby’s “Criticism: Four Faults” (Drama Review 18.4 [T63 - Dec. 1974]: 59-68). (My own short essay, “On Reviewing,” was posted on ROT on 22 March.) But essentially Kirk’s correct; there’s no Reviewers on Reviewing or Critics on Criticism on the shelves. (I did considerable research some years ago on the subject of theater reviewers and critics for my essay "The Power of the Reviewer: Myth or Fact?" [Theatre History Studies 18 (June 1998): 13-38] and I covered the available literature at the time. There was little 10 years ago, and I don’t think the situation has changed much since.)

One of the first things Kirk says is that writing is a way of figuring out what we think. (He repeats this later, too, near the end of Writing Reviews.) That was another thing I used to tell my students (especially when I assigned a journal as a course requirement). I used to paraphrase Gracie Allen--maybe some of you remember this one: "How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?" I made it about writing instead of talking, but the sentiment's the same. I’ve certainly found this to be true of writing reviews (or, in my case these days, my play reports). When my friends first asked me to write them about what I was seeing here in New York, I discovered that I enjoyed trying to sort out what I saw and what my response was. Trying to describe the performance so that someone who wasn’t there can picture it, which is sort of my special focus, became a way to figure out what I’d experienced . . . and why. Sometimes--even often, I’d say--I didn’t know what I thought of a performance, at least not beyond a vague feeling, until I began writing my report. I knew I had to make the experience clear to people who hadn’t seen it, and that really focused my mind. Since the people I was writing for, before ROT, all knew my e-mail address and could (and often did) write me back with comments and questions, I also anticipated what they’d be thinking while they were reading my description. That was a particularly interesting exercise in writing for an audience: all the recipients were theater people, so they knew a lot on the subject, but one’s a former Brit who lives in Israel and another’s an Indian in Kolkata. I became very conscious of my pop culture references and my diction, especially slang and colloquialisms. So not only did writing help me sort out what I think, but it made me pay attention to how I express the thoughts.

Early in Writing Reviews, Kirk observes that the “blurring of boundaries [between art forms] can confuse a reviewer.” This is the same phenomenon that author Richard Kostelanetz discusses in some detail in The Theatre of Mixed Means (Dial Press, 1968). “Since the critic must now respond to dance, film, theatre, and music all at once,” Kostelanetz writes, “criticism of the new work has been sparse and, when in print, meager in perception.” Reviewers knowledgeable about only one performance genre are “monoliterate,” thinks Kostelanetz, which is the same as what Ross Wetzsteon, the late and esteemed Village Voice reviewer and theater editor, calls “illiterate.” Reviewers, Kostelanetz insists, must be “polyliterate,” and, faced with a theater that incorporates all kinds of new techniques, themes, and ideas, those who aren’t should “be humbled by our perceptual illiteracy.” Reviewing, Wetzsteon lamented in 1989, “has simply not kept pace with the theatre it claims to evaluate.” Not a few critics of newspaper reviewers find this a failing to be heartily deplored.

Kirk goes on to ask if there should even be “landmarks” and “touchstones” in the arts about which reviewers write. “Learning the elements of an art is learning what’s already been done,” writes Kirk. This is one of the “four faults” Michael Kirby recognizes in theatrical reviewing (he called it criticism, as most people do . . . but we won’t): reviewers who make the claim that they’re upholding universal standards perpetuate the cultural status quo by privileging “what has been thought to be ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’ in the past” while “stifling” innovation and experimentation. (If you didn’t know it already, you might guess that Kirby was an avant-garde playwright, among other things.) But whose standards are the ones the reviewers impose on the rest of us? Kirby insists they are the reviewers’ own, and so he calls them “arrogant” and accuses them of “fascism of taste.” We might remember that the very “standards” such reviewers praise and want to entrench were themselves once radical innovations, often condemned when they first appeared on stage or on canvas. (Ibsen’s Realism caused riots when it first appeared in print. But, then, so had Victor Hugo’s Romanticism. Go know!) The truth changes.

I do have one caveat, however. While holding only to old standards may be anti-progressive and destructive, we can’t forget the old just because something new has come along--even something new and great. The new is often built on the old, like ancient cities. Kirk writes, “What [new work] won’t be like . . . is what’s gone before it,” by which he means we can’t predict what’s coming down the road based on what we’ve seen already. Of course, he’s absolutely right. But note one axiom: Imagination is new combinations of things known. (I don’t know who said that. Actually, I do know who said it--an acting teacher of mine named Aaron Frankel--I just don’t know who said it first.) Almost nothing we can conjure up, the most horrible monster or the most fantastic machine, isn’t made up of bits and pieces of things we’ve already experienced. We create the new out of bits of the old. We wipe the slate totally clean at our own peril.

In his discussion of the differences between a critic and a reviewer, Kirk states, “In other words, a reviewer offers product advice, telling you whether you should spend your valuable time and your hard-earned money on a particular event.” That’s the “consumer reporter” mode of reviewing, and it’s one of the ways some reviewers see their function. According to surveys, most reviewers see themselves as journalists, that is reporters writing about a news event. Some see themselves as a kind of artist, a writer of the art of criticism. A few simply deny that they have any more influence than the guy who evaluates blenders and can-openers for Consumer Reports. Obviously, the way you see yourself in the profession makes a difference in how you will approach your craft and execute your responsibilities. Which is better? I don’t know; I guess it depends on what the reader wants from your efforts. I suppose the thumbs up-thumbs down consumer report is easiest. Covering the event of a play performance like a news reporter is harder but there’s less of you invested in the outcome. Reporters, after all, aren’t supposed to get invested in the story. Trying to craft a well-written piece of prose that expresses not just the facts of the event but some of the effect it had on you, some of the atmosphere surrounding the event, some of the . . . well, meaning, I guess--maybe that’s not the hardest approach if you’re a talented writer, but there’s more of your ego invested in the end result. I think that’s hard, but that’s what I’d go with. (Okay, editors and publishers have a say, but let’s pretend they don’t.)

As Kirk points out, things have changed on Broadway with respect to opening-night reviews. The “overnight” copy has gone with the copy boy and the press card in the hatband. Now that out-of-town tryouts are mostly a thing of the past (too expensive and too risky), replaced with previews right here in the Big Apple, reviewers no longer have to come to opening night and then rush off to the typewriter (okay, the wordprocessor--I’m hip!) and bash out their deathless prose for a midnight deadline. Now they all go to previews before the play opens and write up their evaluations with a little leisure. (Second-nighters have it even easier, of course. They have a week or more to write their reviews--but they always did.) Staff is shrinking and space is getting cut, but there’s more time now to do the work. But there’s a trade-off. Even when the producers charge the same for a seat at the preview as they do for post-opening tickets, they’re still previews. You’re watching a dress rehearsal, you understand. The cast is still working, and sometimes things haven’t gelled--might even be changed before opening. Reviewers who see a performance before opening night aren’t seeing the finished product. That’s why, in the old days, they had tryouts outside New York City--to give the actors, the director, and the playwright time to fix things that aren’t right. Costumes and sets have been known to be completely rebuilt overnight. It’s not different just because those preliminary performances are now in a New York theater instead of Philly, Boston, or Baltimo’. Even now that I’m not reviewing for anyone, I still insist on seeing shows after they open unless I can’t help it. I know I’ve seen shows that were different from the ones the reviewers wrote about--and not just because we have eyes and brains that aren’t calibrated the same. (See my remarks later on concerning Heraclitus of Ephasus.) Because they saw a pre-season exhibition game and I saw one after the season started--one that counted. (Kirk has a similar admonition later in the book when he writes about those out-of-town tryouts, which some reviewers attend.)

“Sometimes reviewers write both a daily review and a longer weekend-issue or opinion piece,” notes Kirk. The author suggests that the reviewers who do this use the longer column to expand on the thoughts they expressed more briefly in the shorter, daily review. Yeah, and sometimes they just use the second piece to nail a show they didn’t like one more time, just to be sure we got their point. On Thursday, 3 April 1975, for instance, the late Douglas Watt wrote in the Daily News: “Last night some young hopefuls . . . mangled Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ under the auspices of Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival . . . .” He went on at length in the same vein. But that wasn’t sufficient for Watt, so in the Sunday News on 13 April, he slammed the production again: “[The] week before last down on Lafayette Street at the Public Theater . . . a clutch of seemingly demented actors grabbed hold of Ibsen’s ‘Ghosts’ and flung it around . . . as if it were an idiotic farce.” A year earlier, Watt had done the same thing to the same troupe, writing first on Wednesday, 16 October 1974: “Bertolt Brecht is on us again, this time with a noisy and tiresome 75-minute construction titled ‘The Measures Taken.’” Once not being enough, Watt wrote again on Sunday, 8 December, that the actors “are sadly lacking, for the most part” and that the play “fails to involve the spectator in human terms.” It’s nice Watt, who died on 29 September (at 95), had the extra column inches to twist the knife a little.

Kirk claims that he wrote reviews but had “no skill or experience.” I take exception to that self-characterization. Okay, I understand he’s making a point, and I also understand that he literally had no background in review-writing. But he acknowledges that few newspaper reviewers have specialized training or backgrounds--they get it OTJ. What Kirk had, just as what I had when I did that job, is a pretty good knowledge of theater, especially acting, directing, and playwriting, and some skill as a writer. That's a sufficient background for a reviewer, at least to start with; we can gain more as we see more theater and try to do what Kirk describes in the book. There are reviewers who have not had even those qualification--I daresay there have been newspaper reviewers who never saw a live play before they got the gig, though they probably didn't write for a major daily at that point. There are many I could name who are terrible writers (I never thought, for instance, that Frank Rich, for all his authority as the Times chief reviewer, was a very good writer), even if they did have some experience in theater. (There was a Times film reviewer recently, Elvis Mitchell, who I thought was a terrific writer--but he left the paper after a stay of only six years.)

When I wrote reviews, the only special training I had was one class in "criticism" at Rutgers. I took it merely because we MFA-types were required to take one academic-type (i.e., readin'-'n'-writin') class in our two-year program, and I had the choice in the semester I decided to fulfill the obligation of a theater history class or criticism. (It was “reviewing,” but the department called it “criticism.” As I’ve told Kirk, you just can’t fight city hall on this.) I figured I'd had enough theater history at that point, so the process of elimination led me to the criticism class. That was the extent of my training--and no editors ever asked me about it when they hired me to write. (In one case I got in on the recommendation of a former professor alone; in another, I think I may have sent the editor some samples of my writing, but I may not have done even that.) When I edited Directors Notes, a newsletter for directors and artistic directors, I interviewed with the head of the organization, but he never looked at anything I wrote or examined my academic background, either. I certainly never edited anything, much less had a load of experience writing about theater--this was between reviewing gigs--and I ended up editing two newsletters at the same time! (I was appointed to the vice presidency for communications of LMDA when the post became vacant, and one ex-officio job was to put out the newsletter.) In both the reviewing jobs and the editing jobs, I pretty much flew by the seat of my pants, but I did rely on whatever skill I had picked up by then as a writer and my practical knowledge and experience of theater. I've occasionally looked back at some of my old reviews and I don't think I did half bad.

I think Kirk and I both had the requisite skill and experience to be reviewers. As a matter of fact, if we look into the backgrounds of the famous reviewers he cites, I'll bet we'd find that most, if not almost all, had academic backgrounds that had no bearing on theater or reviewing--if they had an academic background at all, as Kirk mentions. (Shaw, perhaps the best writer among all English-language reviewers, ended his formal education before high school. Frank Rich studied history and lit at Harvard, though he did work at the Crimson; Jonathan Kalb, as I mentioned earlier, has a DFA from the YSD. However, I already said I didn't think Rich was a good writer, and I didn't think he was a very good reviewer; and Kalb is arrogant and pompous in my opinion, so they're not such great examples of the profession, whatever their backgrounds.) I'll just bet that Stanley Kauffmann and Brooks Atkinson and most of the others of that era were newspapermen, reporters, before they got into theater reviewing.

[There’s more to come. The Art of Writing Reviews prompted me to many marginal comments and the next installment will be available in a few days. Tune in again for more theater pith and moment.]

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