Criticism’s bad rap
Blacklists, fisticuffs, ‘‘mulish idiocy’’ and losing friends - it ain’t easy being a critic in New Zealand, writes
When Simon Wilson was editing Victoria University student magazine Salient, a theatre director stormed into his office and punched him: a rather physical review of Wilson’s own review of his play.
Although that incident took place decades ago, the relationship between the people making art in New Zealand and the people reviewing it is still fraught.
Spats between creators and reviewers aren’t limited to theatre. Different art forms have different attitudes towards their critics, but antipathy is common. Earlier this year, television writer Gavin Strawhan had a crack at reviewers who had panned his shows Filthy Rich and Dirty Laundry.
He said television reviewing was dominated by ‘‘the Grey Lynn 500’’, a group of Auckland-dwelling elitists whose tastes were out of touch with those of the rest of the country.
He described the Grey Lynn 500 as ‘‘a small group of w... [who] think they should dictate to the rest of the country what the rest of the country’s tastes are. And they feel really arrogant about it, and they don’t acknowledge what people actually like, because they want some dark, moody Norwegian thriller.’’
‘‘There aren’t many real reviewers in New Zealand,’’ he said.
In September, novelist Carl Shuker wrote a piece for The Spinoff attacking the way his colleague Pip Adam’s new book had been reviewed.
The piece was titled ‘‘On the blind, mulish idiocy of reviewers and the genius of Pip Adam’’. It didn’t mince words.
Shuker says the piece had been brewing for at least 20 years. In that time he’s seen New Zealand publishing and book reviewing contract.
He was tipped over the edge by The Spinoff’s ’’An interim report on the state of New Zealand literature in 2017’’, which lumped Adams’ new novel The New Animals together with
Jack Van Beynen.
that of her Victoria University Press stable-mate Tim Corballis under the header ‘‘Zzzzz’’. The Spinoff did not review either book.
‘‘I wrote to [Spinoff books editor]Steve Braunias and he instantly asked me to respond. You don’t see that kind of willingness and responsiveness in the older forms of reviewing and criticism and so it’s awesome,’’ Shuker says.
As an author, Shuker finds reviews of his work ‘‘pretty much useless’’ – especially positive ones. ‘‘The best reviews, from a writer’s perspective, are the cruel but correct because you stand to actually learn something,’’ he says.
So how do you pan a creative work without alienating its creator? That’s a question Simon Wilson spent some time pondering after his violent run-in with the theatre director.
‘‘I thought, ‘If I made you feel that angry, then I’ve done something wrong. If I’ve made you have that response, I don’t think I’ve done that job in the right way,’’’ he says. ‘‘He was quite wrong to punch me of course, but there was a learning.’’
Since those violent early days at Salient, Wilson has reviewed books, television, restaurants and theatre for a range of publications. He edited Auckland’s Metro magazine and now writes for The Spinoff.
Of all the writing Wilson does, he finds reviewing hardest - and it’s a largely thankless task.
‘‘I don’t think there’s a general appreciation that critics play a good role. [Artists] will say that, ‘Yeah it was good, everybody has a role in the ecosystem,’ but I don’t think they really think that. I think they’d much rather we weren’t here.’’
Part of that antipathy towards critics is a result of sour grapes. There are artists and organisations who see reviews as a promotional tool, and view anything negative as a betrayal. On the other side of the coin, the more Wilson likes someone’s work the more they tend to consider him a ‘‘great critic’’.
But there’s also some validity to claims the general standard of arts criticism in New Zealand is pretty poor.
Reviewing is not well paid by most publications - when it’s paid at all. Many organisations consider free tickets to a show or a free book ample compensation for knocking out a few hundred words.
You can’t live on free tickets, so New Zealand has very few full-time reviewers. The duty of reviewing often falls to a junior staffer or someone who is interested in the book, show, album or exhibition. Wilson thinks a reviewer owes it to an artist to know what they’re talking about, but too often, these days, that duty is neglected.
Wilson thinks the centralisation of criticism in media organisations has also had a detrimental effect. Gone are the days when every regional paper had its own reviewer.
‘‘It reduces the role of the critic to the simple provision of information. ‘This show is on at this time,’ whereas if everybody’s got their own critics then you’ve got different points of view and you’ve got more possibility for some interesting ideas.’’
The smallness of New Zealand’s arts scenes can make reviewing awkward. In Shuker’s piece, he wrote: ‘‘This is a country where a friend of mine can eviscerate another friend in print and I must walk a line between them or choose a friendship to lose.’’
Shuker knows writers who don’t review New Zealand books because they don’t want to deal with the personal backlash.
‘‘Vicious lifelong hatreds, fallingsout and more minor despisings are seething all the time in New Zealand lit,’’ he says. ‘‘They’re very real and quite hidden from the general public. And they last years. The smaller the turf the more vicious the war.’’
"I don't think there's a general appreciation that critics play a good role. [Artists] will say that, 'Yeah it was good, everybody has a role in the ecosystem,' but I don't think they really think that. I think they'd much rather we weren't here." Simon Wilson
Critics get a bad rap in New Zealand, but are we being too harsh?
Former Metro editor Simon Wilson has reviewed books, television, theatre and food.