This is not the sort of article I take much pleasure in writing. I think it is a sad state of affairs when artists and reviewers butt heads. However, a couple of recent responses to reviews on The Edge’s website have stirred me to mount a defence of critics and their craft. As both a critic and a creative (as a great many of The Edge’s writers are), I hope I can address this issue in a balanced manner.
Negative responses to criticism are nothing new. When Kevin Smith’s Cop Out was universally panned by reviewers, he took to Twitter to condemn the lot of them as “schoolyard bullies”, asking that age-old – albeit moronic – question, “what’s the point of critics?” Uwe Boll, the infamous creator of such videogame adaptation dross as House of the Dead and Blood Reign: The Third Reich, has repeatedly challenged critics to boxing matches, seemingly labouring under the misguided belief that it is possible to punch your way through negative reviews.
So, what exactly is the point of critics? In a word: entertainment. As much as it relies on the artistic talent of others (or lack thereof) to exist, criticism is an artform in and of itself. A well written, well thought out review of a film, a play or an exhibition, whether positive or negative, is entertaining to read with or without any prior knowledge of exactly what is being reviewed. I am an avid reader of Empire Magazine. I’ll probably never see ninety percent of what they review, but I read it anyway, because it’s entertaining and mentally stimulating.
Critics are never really going to change someone’s mind on whether they like something or not; well no more than Theresa May is going to convince the legions of young Corbynistas to vote Tory on June 8th. I despise Moulin Rouge with a passion, but I am not arrogant enough to think that my arguments against it will persuade any of you; God knows, I’ve tried often enough and you all still love it for some reason that will always be quite opaque to me! But I am just one person. My review is simply my opinion. It is there to entertain, not to convert the masses. No single person’s opinion is important enough to evoke the boxing-glove clad ire of Uwe Boll, surely!
On the level of amateur and student production, criticism can even go a step further: it can actually help to improve. Michael Bay is never going to change his film-making formula. He churns out box-office smash after box-office smash, however awful they might be, so why should he do anything differently? For us amateurs, however, who don’t happen to be millionaire directors, a bit of negative criticism can be very helpful in showing us how and where we can hone our craft to become even better at it. Rather than taking to the comments section of a review to harass the reviewer for not being in love with your creation, surely it is better to take note of their negative remarks, in the hope of creating something better next time. I’m quite sure they didn’t enjoy writing those negative things. Contrary to popular belief, critics are not a bunch of preening sadists, just waiting to leap on your latest creative baby and tear it to shreds, especially not when it’s the work of fellow students.
I understand the compulsion to react to negativity with negativity. I’m sorry to say I have recently been susceptible to it myself. In February, I performed in a TG (Theatre Group) independent production called Breaking that received a negative review from The Edge. This was a new piece of theater, written by a fellow student. Scriptwriting is hard, and no-one writes Citizen Kane on their first try, so naturally much of the criticism was directed towards this particular aspect of the production. “Who is this cretin?”, I remember thinking upon first reading the review; “who does he think he is, to criticize this faultless work of art? I bet he doesn’t even know what he’s talking about!” (this particular critic, it transpired, is a member of Comedy Society, frequently writes his own material, and very much does know what he’s talking about!). In my hubris, I decided to write a letter to the Editor of The Edge, suggesting that they “re-evaluate their approach towards reviews of student productions”. I acted, in short, like an arrogant, self-entitled prick who, as a critic himself, really should have known better. Some of my fellow cast members even went so far as to demand the article be taken down. I am very happy to say that the editorial team at The Edge, exercising their usual impeccable journalistic integrity, didn’t listen to any of us!
Sadly, with the recent review of Help! – another student-written production, this time for Showstoppers – this issue has reared its ugly head once again, with some of the scriptwriters’ nearest and dearest taking to the comments section to make some unsubstantiated and, frankly, cruel remarks about the reviewer, who was only trying to be honest. The irony of calling a reviewer a “petty small minded bigoted person who [should]get his head out of his own anus and join the real world” and accusing their review of being “tantamount to bullying” in the same paragraph is not lost on me.
But with both Help! and Breaking, the one voice that has been conspicuous in its silence is that of the writers themselves. Surely, they have more right than anyone to respond with fury to these negative reviews? But they haven’t. Because they are strong, intelligent human beings who want to improve at what they do. Whilst undoubtedly disappointed with the negative criticism their work received, they will take it on the shoulders and get to work on writing their next piece, which I am quite sure will be all the better for it. They aren’t Kevin Smith, they aren’t Uwe Boll, and they certainly don’t need wounded actors and angry parents to stand up for them.