Wednesday 7 August 2013

Edinburgh: coverage

[probably an unwise article to write]

This is a piece I’ve been meaning to write for ages. However, being in Edinburgh and the recent news that Kate Bassett is to be sacked from her post as theatre critic of the Independent on Sunday, has turned it from a piece about a vague feeling into a discussion of tangible realities. (Incidentally, I think it’s worth reading Michael Coveney’s WOS piece under that link if only because he’s the only critic-with-a-job who still seems to be unafraid to pick fights – in this case with straw target Tim Wanker, but still, I quite admire the fighty spirit of the guy.)

The basic premise of the piece was this: while most considerations of “The Arts” in “The Recession” have focussed on the government’s austerity programme cuts to arts funding there is another attack on the arts which has been slowly, silently gaining momentum: the gradual erosion of coverage.

When I first came to Edinburgh in 1997 (when the students whose flat I’m living in this year were between four and seven, FFS) I think it’s safe to say there was basically no internet. We had something like it at university in the old computer clusters, and we had university email addresses, but there wasn’t much “online”. And it was very slow. The only people who had mobile phones were suspect poshos and show-offs. And they were bricks which emphatically didn’t take photos or connect to the internet.

There were also fewer venues and fewer shows. I seem to remember spending much of those early years at the bar/s of the Pleasance Courtyard (there was no Pleasance Dome then). Around midnight the copy of the next day’s Scotsman would turn up. And pretty much any company who had their Scotsman reviewer in would buy a copy to see if their review was in.

And this was pretty much the model for coverage at the bottom of the food chain. At this stage I think the Scotsman was still trying to cover everything on the Fringe. They took on (unpaid?) student critics – at least, they annually took on the winner of the Harold Hobson Award for Student Criticism from the NSDF (in 1997: Maddy Costa) – and they had a pull out section of page after page of reviews every day.

I haven’t picked up a single copy of the Scotsman this year, although I’ve looked at a couple of Joyce’s reviews online (her review of Grounded is actually excellent, for example) and I look forward to reading Matt Trueman’s Scotsman reviews when he sticks them on his own website.

But mostly the Scotsman is an irrelevance now. Or rather, it doesn’t occupy the huge position of prominence it once did. It no longer tries to cover everything, so its most useful USP has gone. (although the Fringe Firsts are still a nice bonus for the companies receiving them) No one else tries to cover everything now either. On the other hand, the Fringe has, what? Nearly doubled in size in the last fifteen years? Certainly it’s expanded by over a third. So is blanket coverage even possible any more? It’s hard to say, but the young student company with whom I’m sharing this flat have been reviewed (very favourably) four times. Peer-reviewed, you might say, since their reviewers are more likely to be their age than my age.

No chilly midnight Scotsman vigils in the Pleasance Courtyard. They’ve probably got a Google Alert set on one of their smartphones, so whenever a review of the show goes up: ping! There it is, and off they march to their venue to print out another rank of four stars. And they even get interviewed by Guardian Culture Pros.

So there’s still coverage, but the loss of Kate Bassett’s position – not only has she been sacked, but the post from which she’s been sacked has essentially been disappeared along with her – has put the snippy fear of God into The Professionals. (The Independent on Sunday will still apparently still carry reviews but they’ll most likely be done by a freelancer or freelancers – who won’t get a retainer, and who won't cost as much.)

The carping is quite interesting when it comes at the same time as Edinburgh. Enter Mark Shenton who writes in his piece The World Doesn’t Revolve Solely Around Edinburgh – a headline (yes, he writes his own) demonstrating once more the innate way with words that won him the enviable mantle of being A Professional – “There’s always a temptation at this time of year for it to seem like the entire world – or at least its theatre practitioners and reporters, fans and followers – is decamping to Edinburgh. The arts pages will be full of it for the next couple of weeks, at least (until they inevitably lose interest).”

(yes, that’s “a temptation for it to seem like” – professionalism, see).

Except that it doesn’t seem like that. Leaving aside the annual rash of this sort of article (another ill-tempered, poisonous example of bah-humbuggery by Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Tossgraph: “between Stockbridge and the Meadows you will be unable to move for hordes of drunken youths and the detritus of fast-food restaurants... The [International Festival] theatre programme, it has for a long time made my heart sink. Nothing since the sublime Cegada de Amor in 1997 has hit the jackpot for me, and too many of the arcane imports from Europe, Asia and the US seem locked into time-warped clichés, all flickering video screens and jerking marionettes, with prattle about the site-specific and the art installation in their aesthetic hinterland. The Wooster Group, for heaven’s sake! Meredith Monk! Please, not again.” etc. etc. you get the picture. (Actually quite interesting, but it’s all very well for someone whose first Fringe was 1967 to grumble that they’ve seen it all before, but mine was 30 years later, and I’m staying with people who have ever been before, so to an extent, even old-hattery is pretty interesting. I can’t wait to see the Wooster Group’s Hamlet, for example.))

But everyone’s coverage is getting cut back. (ok, Trueman reckons the Times has expanded theirs, but he pays for the paywall, and I don’t). Ian Shuttleworth the fringe veteran par excellence is only putting in two weeks rather than four these days – maybe in part that’s health, age and inclination, but I think it’s also FT cutbacks. Long gone are the days of the FT flat, expenses and so on. And, thanks to a disastrous use of metrics, and not understanding how an ecology works except by counting hits and measure footage of commentary, no matter how toxic, the Guardian’s coverage is also noticeably scaled back from the point when I met their, what, six or seven strong team in 2008. As it stands, I think only the still-excellent (indeed, on particularly acute and sharp form this year) Lyn Gardner is the only “professional” critic from a British (rather than Scottish) paper who is up for the duration.

And so we come back to this vexed question of “professionalism”.

Last Friday Ismene Brown wrote a ludicrous, vain, nonsensical piece for Guardian Culture Pros (which is plainly where all the action is now).

The entire thing is a blizzard of rubbish but her claim that “The balance between professional critics and web amateurs is switching so fast that performing companies now routinely email and tweet press releases into the digital space without contacting arts specialists about an in-depth story” is especially irritating. Because no one on the internet is a specialist, and because newspapers love nothing more than to print specialists. Right?
“At The Arts Desk, we swim at the forefront of this storm.”
with our mixed metaphors.
“We are Britain's first professional critics website (all web, zero print)”
and with zero payments for articles. This is where the Arts Desk argument really falls down. Or rather, where the Brown definition of “professional” falls over. Essentially, the theatre critics at the Arts Desk are the spare ones. The ones who are “professional” by dint of years at The Times, or at Time Out, or at The Stage, etc. But who no one’s really employing at the moment. So, yes, they can claim to be “professional critics” in that that’s something that once happened, but they’re not paid for what they’re writing for The Arts Desk. That’s not “professional criticism”. At which point, we realise again, that “professional” is a pretty stupid measure for anything. Well, it’s a fine way of asking “did you get paid to write it?” but that’s all. I think most writers-on-theatre I know now regard their paid work as the worst, the most laborious, the most thankless, the least inspiring. Largely because of the imaginative drought afflicting most newspapers.

Newspapers were going down the tubes before the recession, but before the recession it felt like they still had the brave new world of the internet to explore and expand into. There was a lot of content, and far fewer bean-counters. There was an attitude, certainly at the Guardian, of trying stuff out. That quite niche and marginal work could be explored – at least it could if you could find a way of getting it into a blog which asked a sort of tagged-on question. I’ve got no idea who thought that bit up.

Anyway, to return to the Arts Desk:
“We aim to put greater critical depth and – I'd argue – bolder, faster reviews out to the public than any of the print megaliths manage, rising 7,000 articles by some 100 arts journalists of proven repute.”
and they have failed to do so. The sad fact is, the Arts Desk reads like precisely what it is: the spiked copy of second-rate, middle-of-the-road writers. And no one reads it. I doubt many theatre professionals could even tell you who writes for it. Hardly essential stuff. And, for God’s sake, critical depth? Really, Ismene? Do you ever read your website or can’t you be bothered either?

Have you read this (star-rated) review of The Events on The Arts Desk for example?
“[the fact there is] a different choir singing at each performance may mean that some nights are more polished than others. There were times, too, when The Events felt like a work in progress (there were departures from the published text), but there are two strong and vivid performances at its heart and this is a play that will stay in the memory.”
Bold. Fast. Critical. Deep.


Nica Burns took up the same theme with her “Endangered Critics” speech at the launch of, oh, I dunno, some comedy award probably. The Stage says: “She said that while she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not rise at the expense of criticism of culture, of all sorts.” This doesn’t make the distinction she intended clear. But it seems to make online sounds somehow like a second class version of "professional" or "print".

And this is now nonsense. Go and read the reviews of Dan Hutton, or Catherine Love or Stewart Pringle, all of whom review primarily online, and honestly tell me they’re not better than the 350-word, star-ratinged, news-agenda-led reviews in the papers. And then maybe go and look at the work that can be found elsewhere on Exeunt by critics like Diana Damian and Daniel Yates. And then, for contrast, look at the teeming hordes of reviewers at A Younger Theatre, making up in enthusiasm for what they might sometimes lack for want of practice. And then, for brilliant fun, looks at blogs like Meg Vaughan’s and Eve Nicol’s...

Online is where the criticism is, Nica. And a load of other, fun stuff about theatre. You’re just talking about reviews-by-people-who-have-seen-a-lot-of-shows (and if you talked to them, ?i bet they're bloody frustrated with the situation too). There’s apparently neither room nor appetite for actual criticism in the papers at present, so I suggest you recalibrate your vocabulary accordingly and stop badying the word professional about like it was a by-word for quality, which, when Shenton, and Walker, and Letts, and Evans are professionals, it simply cannot be.

Which brings us circularly to arch-reviewer Mark Shenton, reporting on Nica Burns’s speech (or rather, copying and pasting huge chunks of it flinging a couple of sentences in between them and calling it a blog).

He says:
“It’s an irony, too, that she should also say this in Edinburgh, where at this time of year there seem to be as many people reviewing shows as putting them on. But as she also points out, though she welcomed the spread of online reviewing on blogs and social media, it should not be at the expense of professional criticism.”
Which is a particularly tricky thing to fathom, since Shenton has already explained five days ago that he didn’t want to come to Edinburgh. And yet here he is (online) worrying that online critics might cost professional reviewers their jobs. At this point it becomes rather tempting to wonder: if they’re prepared to actually do the job, then maybe they’d be better candidates for the job.

There’s a lot of talk of the crisis in criticism, but if you look at the best of the blogs – which is pretty much all I ever read now – then it strikes me that criticism is in its healthiest state for years.

Yes, the editors of our national newspapers appear to be philistines of the first water. But in part that explains why we’ve got so many of the critics we’ve got. We’ve got editors who would rather have misanthropic, snide diary-columnists writing their theatre reviews than people who know even the first thing about theatre. Or who care about it. Or who take it seriously... We’ve got editors who then point to the dwindling audiences for these “critics” as evidence that there’s no appetite for theatre criticism. And they cut their Edinburgh coverage, which they’ve made less and less good, because fewer and fewer people are reading it.  And (if it’s the Guardian) they still run pieces elsewhere arguing that investment in the arts repays with better arts, better attendance of the arts, and so on.

Well, partly. As Ravenhill’s recent speech suggested (and, yes, it did amuse me that I had it up online five hours before the Guardian did), you can make art as outsiders and guerillas. We can do criticism that way too. Sure, it’d be nice to be paid and distributed widely, but while the papers follow an increasingly philistine agenda they will continue to feel the effects of more and more interested readers going elsewhere. And no amount of speechifying by dinosaurs who don’t understand the terrain will make “newspaper criticism” any better, or “online criticism” any worse.


Anonymous said...

Fighting talk. Well said.

Paul said...

The major problem with web reviews is in how do people sort out the worthwhile blog critic from the 'mate of the director' or the 'sworn enemy of the director'? On the internet everything is Google's equal so buyer, most definitely, should beware.

If print reviews are dying off, what we are left with will have just as significant, if different, problems. People who are too close to those they review, those who are reviewing to promote their own practice, those who, because they are work as artists themselves, lack an audience's perspective and so on.

So what will people read? If the internet is anything to go by, it will be the most opinionated, least thoughtful, least relevant option.

Come back dead tree press, all is forgiven!

Diana Damian said...

I am going to jump in here Paul, because I think what you touch upon are things very much embedded in what Andrew is talking about, that make some problematic assumptions.

Re "how do people sort out the worthwhile critic from the mate of the director"?

They don't. Good criticism (whatever that means) is not reliant on whether or not the critic is sleeping with the director; or married to; or mates. Subjectivity works differently, and it has a place in criticism, and a really interesting one that should warrant more interesting analysis of process, position and approach rather than levelling. Criticism has politics yes, but I think there's an assumption here that some sort of "emotional distance" equals "critical objectivity". This is nonsense.

This discussion has often been tagged on to online writers because the tone is different, and so are the levels of expertise and engagement, consistency of writing and approach etc. By comparison, mainstream media press is actually equally problematic. Because as Andrew mentions decisions of coverage are of course informed by politics; because there's an assumption of objectivity veiled in particular agendas that are maybe less visible, and more embedded.

I think readers can make a distinction between copy and criticism, and I don't think this appropriation of a specific language and mode of discourse is particular just to bloggers; newspapers are equally guilty (look at the majority of the Guardian's coverage for eg aside from the occasional piece from Lyn or Catherine). Sure there is a problem of language, of approach, of too many critics simply reading text onstage rather than discussing an actual performance; the problem of discourse is a different one though.

What is an "audience" perspective? Surely the audience is an incredibly diverse group, with different tastes, interests, expertise, relationships to work.

So to claim that criticism and expertise and professionalism are somehow tied to universal values like Brown does in her Guardian Culture Professional article is the problem; (that's politicizing, actually). To sort of try to blanket questions that might prompt relevant discussions on criticism and its relationship to art practice, mediation etc (we often presume that there is something there that needs to be mediated for the consumer; there isn't; we're there to do something else, which is why disagreement is so healthy in constructing judgement in culture) is not just nonsensical, but incredibly ignorant.

What will people read? What they want to read. What is the critic there to do, and where / how can / should she do it? That's a different story. Let's not assume that "people" always go for the lowest common denominator, and maybe then some criticism will be less patronising towards readers.

Paul said...

The issue is that the internet is flat, it makes no distinction clear to the reader. For all its faults I know that the mainstream press is of a different order and at least I know that Billington will go on and on about lack of social context, Letts will be a reactionary git etc.

On some sites, for example, I've read reviews and it's piques my curiosity as to who the reviewer is and how that may have fed into their review. Some do give a brief pen picture of who they are but, sometimes, a bit of googling is needed. If you are paying for tickets why should you accept anyone's opinion without judging them as well?

As for internet reviewers, on a magazine site or as an individual, the more the merrier. In fact, there should be many, as otherwise would be to replace one limited group with another. For UK theatre, the numbers on the web are not big enough yet.