Crit­i­cism’s bad rap

Black­lists, fisticuffs, ‘‘mul­ish id­iocy’’ and los­ing friends - it ain’t easy be­ing a critic in New Zea­land, writes

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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