Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Reviews

Negative reviews most probably have existed since Sophocles’ time and are a fact of life in all the arts. Most are subjective expressions of taste, and as such are beyond discussion: de gustibus non est disputandum.
Some reviews may show the reviewer’s limited or differing knowledge or experience. Where the reviewer’s differing knowledge is the cause of a negative review a mutually productive conversation might be opened – or might not.

Some negative reviews give the writer, artist, whoever the receiver, notice of where a passage or idea has been unclear – at least for that reviewer. Where the problem is lack of clarity and resultant misunderstanding, the playwright in rehearsal, the author with a book in e-file, can edit and amend. In the near past, American theater producers routinely gave new shows out-of-town runs specifically to elicit reviews that could help to improve their plays.

The problem with negative reviews is seldom the content, but that negative reviews are so often couched in language that, in other ways of communicating, would be rude. The review is a form of writing that seems to grant exceptional freedom – not merely compared to other kinds of writing, but in life itself. 

Theater critics for newspapers were valued for their witty blasts because readers found them amusing. The sense that someone can get away with such rudeness is a gleeful relief for those who live in constant suppression of annoyances and anger. That there is an artist, a playwright, a writer on the receiving end of the blast is of little concern, and in any case people in the arts are seldom in a position to retaliate. 

The internet has opened a new world for reviews, and one even less circumscribed than the professional reviewing world of the past, when editors and media policies drew limits. 

During my long life as a writer I’ve reviewed fine art and theater for various publications, and my husband’s career, for some twenty years, was as a New York theater critic for a daily newspaper. We’ve given thought to these issues. 

Now, though I’m asked with some frequency to review books, I’ll only review a book that I’ve read to the end and deem to be of 4- or 5-star quality. If a book doesn’t move me to give it a good review, I decline to review it at all. Why, merely because the work is not to my taste, or my views differ, should I give a negative review when it may be thoroughly enjoyed by somebody else?

Very few works actually pose a danger – inciting real violence of one variety or another. A book such as Mein Kampf would surely qualify. But most books, paintings, plays, films, music, dances are the work of people whose aim is to entertain, to bring a dimension of added interest to life. This is no sin. 

There are truly bad things in the world, but the arts are very seldom among them. Yes, deplore the horrors of war, of social injustice, of disease – but how do any of the arts deserve the high disdain and condemnation that so often is hurled at them? 

And the words of critics can do real damage. Sergei Rachmaninoff was so stricken by the cruelty that greeted his first symphony that he fell into deep depression. It was three years before he recovered and was able to compose again. What magnificent music did we lose in those years of his silence? What if he had never recovered? The cruel reviewer, incidentally, was a fellow composer who never achieved a fraction of Rachmaninoff's renown.

Every art form seeks an audience and thrives or withers from the tone, even more than the content, of responses. Some artists are strong and persevere, some are crushed and the fine works they might have done never come into being. 

Even Shakespeare felt this poignant vulnerability. In his last words to his audience he says, through Prospero, “Gentle breath of yours my sails must fill or else my project fails, which was to please.”

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Katherine Ashe is the author of the  four volume Montfort novelized series