Friday, December 5, 2008

Critic-O-Meter's Critics

Well, we're not going to grade these, but so far we've gotten a mix of responses to Critic-O-Meter. We welcome them!

First, Garrett Eisler at Playgoer got the ball the rolling weeks ago when he discovered the site in beta form. As is often the case at Playgoer, the comments are as interesting as the post, but I liked Anonymous' defense against the criticism of Nick Fracaro, that this represents "final stage in the devolution of the theatre review":
To the extent that this site can expose people to more critical writing and fight the notion, held among too many theatergoers, that the Times' review unfailingly represents the consensus, we should be applauding it. Assuming that people simply won't read any text if they can look at a grade or a star rating is snobbery, no?

And Garrett himself raises a really important point:
Nic's point, I'm afraid, falls into the trap of so many attacks on Internet writing--which is ignoring the HUGE significance of LINKS. Online articles can document and point readers to sources so much more fully and effectively (and instantly!) than print ever could. An online piece of writing is more than just a quick personal statement--it contains within itself a whole "web", if you will, of references leading you to other articles, more articles, and so on, and so on....(as the old commercial used to say.)

My friend and colleague at the LA Weekly, Steven Leigh Morris, was much less taken with the idea, writing:
I'd rather watch reruns of Mr. Ed, where at least there's some excitement. Butler and Weinert-Kendt's noble experiment is built from twigs. If you wish to build a house that will endure, you start with seasoned wood, something that will stand up through time. Silent Nic rightly points out that most print reviews, and the online reviews that emulate them, are primarily consumer reports - twigs - a far cry from the oak of criticism that aims to investigate a production rather than merely judge it. Perhaps, as Butler suggests, examining the way these twigs may or may not intersect in the grand architecture of our arts criticism will lead to some deeper insight about something or other. I don't believe it.

As I wrote to Steven in a comment: As a theatregoer myself, I (and presumably other folks) have long wished that such a site existed. As a critic myself, I admit I do balk a bit at being reduced to a grade. (I'm not a big fan of the notorious clapping man, either, but then, part of what makes him so inordinately powerful is that he embodies only one critic's opinion.) But apart from advising people what they should spend their bucks to see, I think Critic-O-Meter has the potential to widen if not deepen the conversation. Our site is never going to be the Web equivalent of Eric Bentley, but if Mr. Bentley were writing today, Critic-O-Meter would be grading him right alongside the lamest Web hacks--and, more important, linking to his writing.

Finally, the portentously named Ethan Stanislawksi of the blog Tynan's Anger has a post prophetically pre-deploring the notion of a site like ours. He's giving advice on how to save theater criticism from supposed imminent death, and under the heading "Ditch thumbs up/thumbs down, A-F grade, 1-4 stars, and all that," he floats a provocative idea:
Some would say with the rise of sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, providing a numerical score is more essential. But theater doesn’t have an infrastructure like that yet on the web, and there’s no need to create one. Even the binary system of see it/don’t see has become obsolete in an era where the financial disparity between the critic and patron’s decision to attend theater has never been higher. Instead, provide a summary of what segment of your audience you think would like this production, and which one wouldn’t. No sacrificing of editorial standards is involved in saying that.

Hmm...that may not entail a sacrifice of editorial standards, but would probably involve a certain degree of condescension and snarkiness, and in some ways it's an even more crassly consumerist idea than simply grading shows. (Eric later welcomed us as warmly as he could.)

I will admit, though, that this points to one area where rankings are useless: Forbidden Broadway and Blasted may have the same grade, but would anyone in their right mind recommend both shows to the same theatergoer? I doubt it, and the only way to get a sense of whether you might like a show or run screaming from the theater, apart from whether the critic says he loved it and you must rush to see it or your life won't be complete, is to read the freakin' reviews. I think most of us do this: We read past or around the critic's praise or scorn for cues as to whether it's our kind of show.

Another way to put this: There's no accounting for taste. And that's true, of course.

On the other hand, have you ever seen a show and disagreed with the Times review? And then looked around and found other reviews from other publications that backed up your opinion? In my experience, I usually can find at least one other critic who wrote exactly what I thought of a show (if it wasn't me, of course). But I only do that for shows I've actually seen and have an opinion of, and I have to do the web-crawling myself. What if there were a site that did that for all the shows out there—that put the Times review in perspective alongside the sometimes 20-plus (for Broadway shows) or dozen (for Off-Broadway shows) reviews? Of course, the grades Isaac and I give are subjective, as is each critic's assessment, but at bottom, this urge to compare, contrast, and seek validation is the animating impulse behind Critic-O-Meter, as much as it is to provide a "Consumer Report."

We hope you'll find this site useful, interesting, provocative—and we hope you'll tell us what you think of it.

UPDATE: Thanks for the nod, Adam!


Ethan Stanislawski said...

Despite the misspelling of my name, I sincerely appreciate the response. Of course, even I have found myself skimming the actual content and focusing on my grade. I have a stat background, so maybe I'm weird in this regard

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Name corrected! Sorry about that.