It’s not just performers who sometimes snap back at critics. Writers, directors, and on occasion lighting designers do it too. Who can blame them? Not me. Nobody ever smarts from a five-star rave review, even if the critic has totally misunderstood the intention of the artist, but a negative review can cut a performer, artist or writer to the quick. It can feel satisfying to snap back, particularly if you feel that critic has failed to “get” what you are doing. Or the critic has been snappy themselves.
As both a children’s novelist, whose work is reviewed (but not often, because like children’s theatre, children’s novels are seldom seen worthy of review) and a theatre critic I can see both sides. In the days before social media or indeed email, letters decrying reviews often arrived written in green ink (and sometimes apparently tear-stained if they came from Max Stafford-Clark when he was at the Royal Court in the 1980s). Now any response is more likely to be more public and on Twitter. As a result, things can get overheated very quickly. I suspect that the best response to criticism is not a spectator sport but an ongoing dialogue.
I’m always happy to engage with anyone who thinks that I’ve given their work a rough ride. The more negative the review, the greater the responsibility to explain why you have written what you did. I’ve had numerous cups of tea with artists who have felt that I didn’t fully appreciate or engage with what they were trying to do. Sometimes they were right. We all have off days (or in the case of critics, nights) at work. Sometimes those conversations have made me feel differently about their work, sometimes we have parted agreeing to differ. But I’ve always been struck in these encounters by the generosity of artists and their eagerness to engage in critical dialogue around their work in a way that 350 words is never going to do.
As suggested last week in the Ask Lyn piece that prompted your Twitter response, Jenny, I reckon criticism is part of a conversation, and should never be the final word. How much better if that conversation is courteous and constructive. Abuse is never part of that. Nor is prejudice. Critics must have the freedom to express their opinion about art—and it is only their opinion-- but they need to be alert to their own privilege, bias and prejudice. When we are not, we should be called out. Even snapped at if necessary.