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August 31, 2011


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It's really difficult to learn how to take bad reviews gracefully, and I still struggle with it. For my part, I try to take criticism that might be useful to heart. At least consider it, you know? It's generally pretty obvious when somebody has written a thoughtful bad review vs. when somebody is just an a-hole (and we know who those critics are.)

"It's a little bit hypocritical to get up in a high dudgeon about reviews committing some sin of cruelty when we ourselves say far worse to each other. "

No it's not, Isaac. Shut up.

Tony Adams

I gotta say, when I read a review that says something to the effect of "this show intends to ___", it's almost always off the mark. Often laughably so.

Jason Zinoman

Tony: Even if that's the case, it's still important for critics to work hard to try and understand the intent. It's rather difficult to divine the intent and i don't think critics need to be right, especially since what we have to judge is what's onstage, not a behind the scenes documentary. Moreover, when groups of people are making something, there often are many different intents or a different intent for the direction versus the playwright. And there's also the fact that artists themselves sometimes create work that is received in such a way that is actually better than the original intention. As someone who just wrote a book about horror movies, i can tell you this happens in that genre all the time. We review plays, not intents. That said, it's an incredibly important point Isaac is making for people who do what i do. That's because the difference between a fair review and an unfair one is quite often an issue of how deeply the critic considered what the artists were trying to do. As a whole and individually. Intent is a very tricky and problematic thing to figure out, and yet, it's one of those cases where my experience tells me what matters most is the trying.

David Cote

I gotta say, when I read a playwright who says something to the effect of "my show intends to ___", it's almost always off the mark. Often laughably so.


This is really well said, and reads much better here than it was on my blog. At the risk of repeating the implication of Jason and David's comments, if the intent is laughably misunderstood by a reviewer, that is also the production's fault. It's our responsibility to be clear in what we're trying to do, from intent through production, and if the production is muddied, from too many cooks or not enough leadership, then the show should be taken to task for that.

When I see a play where all the actors are in the same piece, and where the production seems to support the writing, then I'm usually thrilled with the final product, even if it isn't something I'd normally love. When one, or more, of the artists involved is on a different page, it ends up looking a little like a toy with a price-tag on it - everything you see might be very colorful, but you can tell which thing you're supposed to pick off with your fingernail.


Sorry, the above first line should be "than what was on my blog". This piece was never on my blog, I wrote a different piece on reviewing.


I love Cote's comment. It's so spot on. What I intend and what I end up with are usually quite different and I often feel like I don't truly understand what a play is about until much, much later.

There have only been a couple of critics who wrote about MilkMilkLemonade as a play about the body, which couldn't be further from my intention, but is very much what I came to understand as the play's main thrust. It was completely unintended, and it took me ages to realize, but there it is.

George Hunka

I'm surprised that nobody has mentioned the "Intentional Fallacy," which has been an element of literature criticism for some time and describes some of the drawbacks of attempting to infer intention from a work -- or whether it's even possible to assess through intent. The best explanation is W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's 1954 "The Intentional Fallacy." It is in part a contribution to New Criticism's close reading, but still may be of interest to academics and cultural reviewers alike:




You'll note above that I discuss trying to figure out what the work's intent is, not the author's. That's intentional. While art is never fully made from the conscious mind, the work created is still trying to do something. And it's worth trying to figure that out when trying to discuss whether or not the work is successful.

Tony Adams

@Jason, I agree that critics (and artists) should try to ask what a work is trying to do. I think that far too many critics leap over that step, and it especially shows with works written outside the eurocentric-male perspective. (Which is exacerbated by the paltry numbers of women and writers of color working as critics.)

However, I there is a common misstep when moving from asking what a work's intent is, to asserting what a work intended to be.

@David I'd slightly disagree. In my experience it's pretty rare for a writer to not be on the money about what a work intends to do. It's pretty common for them to be off about what a work actually does. Subtle but distinct difference.

@Issac I think another thing that doesn't get said often enough is some critics would do well to step away for a while. If dismissiveness and snark are the first things in someone's arsenal, than they should walk a way for a bit and recharge their batteries. It's healthier for them and for the form. I think the same holds true for artists, btw.

Jeremy M. Barker

@George re: intentional fallacy. There's a reason literature professors still warn students about engaging in "empty formalism."

George Hunka

But there is something of a Modernist consensus that "form IS content, content IS form," as Beckett put it in writing about Joyce. But one needn't look only at Modernist literature for examples of this.

The metrical structure of the sonnet (since Isaac will be teaching poetry this fall, I might as well use this as an example) is a means of "forming" the content that lies within it. In a Shakespearean sonnet, for example the metrical form stretches and manipulates the raw feelings of desire and loss that make up its content: the expression becomes elastic enough in both its structure and its idea so that it's very hard to say whether the expression itself would be the same without the strictures of the sonnet form.



Your latter example isn't an example of form and content being the same thing-- which the Beckett quote gestures towards-- but rather that they interplay. I don't see how that actually contradicts Jeremy's point which was that form on its own isn't enough, is "empty."

If we took the Sonnet form and wrote one about buying Teddy Bears, it would no longer contain the "raw feeling of desire and loss that make up its content." The form of the sonnet does not possess the feelings that the content does, it shapes them.

Jeremy isn't saying-- correct me if I'm wrong here, Jeremy-- that form isn't worth focusing on. And neither am I (you'll note the "formal properties" section above, which can and should extend to things like structure and dramaturgical concerns). We're saying they're different, interrelated things.

George Hunka

No, of course not -- a sonnet about buying Teddy Bears wouldn't contain etc. etc., but that's to misread what I'm saying. WHATEVER the sonnet is "about," what makes one sonnet different from another is not merely its content, but the expression of that content, which indeed is shaped by the form. The question is whether the content is "self-aware," if we can call it that.

I don't recall any of my professors warning me about "empty formalism," by the way -- mainly because form and content are SO inter-related that to validate one at the expense of another is to give a poem shorter critical shift than its study dictates. But then I haven't been in a classroom in a long time, and maybe things have changed.

I don't believe we disagree, actually.


We might not. I will say that I do think I grow more aesthetically conservative re: form once we move on to the stage. Not saying that formal experimentation isn't allowed, or other forms are bad or anything like that. And I wanted to make this case ina longer post later, but let me just rough draft it now:

When someone is reading a formally thorny work-- or even let's not say that, but a work like a sonnet where really if you aren't focusing on the form you're missing about 50% of what's going on-- you have the luxury of controlling your own pace of readership. You can read the poem, re-read it, read some outside critical essays, revisit it, just focus on the rhyme scheme, whatever. You can really hunker down. Certainly, when I've read more experimental prose works, the time factor, the ability to reread an abstruse sentence five times until its meaning unlocks, is of great value.

On stage, you do not have that luxury. The audience is seeing something once. And in real time. Even film-- thanks to new distribution mechanisms-- doesn't have to deal with this problem.

And so this connects back to Jeremy's question about how educated the audience you are writing for needs to be. It could be that-- a la Foreman's program note in Lumberjack Messiah-- you're trying to provide them with an experience, not necessarily one that involves "understanding," and people should just get whatever they get. But if there is something to be understood, something that the audience needs to "get," it's worth tempering some of the obscurity of the piece in order to make sure that they get it. Otherwise, why bother doing it in the first place? Self-expression? That's what blogs are for! Theatre is about reaching an audience, and the interplay between production, text and spectator. And that may mean that certain outre gestures have a lower probability of being successful and that that should be considered when constructing a work.

There is a way that so-called experimental work can become its own scene as well with its own set of conventions. There was a time in New York where everything had video, performers with deliberately flat affect, dance breaks and not one genuine human concern in the entire work. And to me that is just as deadly-- if not, in fact, more deadly-- than something kind of conservative and old had. Because at least the conservative old hat stuff is about something beyond a desire to be accepted by your peers, and is satisfying (in ways that are problematic, don't get be wrong).

George Hunka

If you'll permit, by the way, I'd just like to add that my original comment about the Intentional Fallacy is just as appropriate to a work as an author. In the cases where we have a stated intent by the author for a work as well as the work itself, we might be justified in making a comparison (bearing in mind that artists notoriously are never sure what they're intending, as Josh suggests above). Otherwise, though, the critic is engaging in a bit of ESP -- hard enough to do with an individual, harder with a work of art, especially a collaborative work such as a theatre performance.

If, as Wimsatt suggests, the intentional approach to criticism is invalid a priori, then criticism must be based on something else, and there are other schools of criticism which dispense with the intentional approach, such as the New Historicists (like Stephen Greenblatt) and, yes, structuralism. They do set out to assess a work based upon social context or genre.

Trends in academia, especially in the study of literature, come and go like any other trends. You may be interested, Isaac, given your current profession, to take a look at a book called Professing Literature by Gerald Graff, which is a very entertaining and readable history of academic literary studies in America. And so far as critical trends go, T.S. Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, something of a masterpiece in its field I understand (and similarly very well written), is actually very pertinent to the means by which one critical paradigm is replaced by another.


I guess, George, I reject the idea that trying to define and figure out a work's intent (different from an author's) is a priori mistaken. I think-- at least when we're talking about reviewing theatre-- it's the place to start in one's thought process. It's the clearest and easiest gateway into considering form and structure, and it keeps the reviewer from focusing merely on their own taste and genre prejudices. I love Greenblatt. I love other schools of criticism and other ways of looking at work, I think there are ways to synthesize them without throwing anything overboard. You can consider intent and structure and context (David Foster Wallace talks about this in his essay Greatly Exaggerated which, as you might guess, is his own response to The Death Of The Author). I'm not a huge fan of authorial intent. You can describe what a piece does and is trying to do without trying to psychically read back into what the person who put fingers to keyboard meant to do. And I think this is where I differ from a lot of intention-based criticism. I don't think art is completely created by the conscious mind and thus it is the work, not the author, that maters here.

Thanks for the recommendation, I had heard about Professing Literature and hadn't had a chance to check it out yet.

George Hunka

Your comment slipped before I'd completed mine, Isaac.

I do accept your thesis that theatre is unique in that its temporal quality is immediate -- you can't back up a performance as you can a film, or page back to pick up a thread you may have lost -- but that's essential to the form itself. That does not mean, however, that this work can't be as challenging as an experimental text or film. It's not only a matter of know knowledgable or educated about a kind of art work the spectator is; this may be of much lesser significance of what an individual spectator brings to a performance in terms of personal experience, prejudice, open-mindedness to new perspectives, what-have-you. (In the case of the critic, this is slightly different, but the critic fulfills a different professional role than that of an audience member.) Directors like Foreman and Barker define the audience as a collection of individuals rather than a being that somewhat mysteriously becomes a thing in itself once the houselights come down, and so honor the spectator's own individual agency to experience and interpret. It's true that an audience at a live performance is unique in that a work is by definition a real-time communal event, but the theatre artist may be more interested in fragmenting that community than addressing it as a collective.

Like experimental art, any genre can be its own "scene," and traditional artists or those writing in one particular genre or another may be writing as much for the acceptance of their peers as for their audiences. I would suggest, however, that those who do so (and I'm not denying that these kinds of artists do exist) are in a minority, and that the entire field shouldn't be presumed to feel the same way.

Jeremy M. Barker

Finally going back and reading these comments, I'm struck by how much a discussion of how criticism should work veers off into what are essentially artistic choices the understanding of which is then projected back onto the critic. The artist can never really choose their audience; the artist can merely choose how to engage the audience who shows up, which may or may not be successful in terms of what the artist intended (whatever that may be--considering that George and Isaac are artists and makes as well, I'll take it for granted that they operate with some intent when creating work).

At a certain point, though, all of this discussion risks ignoring the audience entirely. Are you suggesting, George, that a critic should not appreciate Barker's or Foreman's attempts to relate to their audience in addressing the piece? Here we have form and intent (stated or otherwise) deeply interrelated.

The problem with all this discussion, then, is it amounts to various schools of thought arguing about to understand, interpret, and critique work. That's all fine and dandy but has absolutely no relation to the practical issue of how reviewing in a popular context happens. If the original discussion revolved around the better practices of reviewing, and whether in practice many reviews are fair, just, or even accurate...well, we've wandered down a road where at best we're all representing partisan positions, not actually discussing how this stuff works.

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