Constellation of consternation, or the faults in our stars 1in4
Herald readers booked a last minute short break la sty ear.
THIS seems like an appropriate season during which to give some consideration to stars. However, I am not thinking of the one in the sky over
Bethlehem 2,000 to years ago that was followed by the Magi and is remembered on the top of Christmas trees – although I do heartily recommend a viewing of the BBC4 Sky at Night Christmas Special broadcast ten days ago that investigates what the biblical story may actually have recalled in scientific terms.
No, the stars I have in mind are the ones that feature at the top of reviews of performances on the arts pages of this and other newspapers and magazines. This past year I learned that I am known behind my back as Keith “Four Stars” Bruce. This quasi-US military designation is a result of my default position on the star rating I am obliged to put on every review.
I am choosing my words carefully here. “Obliged” because I am really not keen on stars on reviews at all, and “default” because that is precisely true. Most of the time I have probably intended the rating, but the fact is that the template for the setting of a review on The Herald pages has four stars on it, by way of illustration of how the typography should look. So if the production journalist designing the arts page is distracted during the task and forgets to alter it to the number of stars specified by the critic, four stars is what will appear. Result: one slightly cross critic, and possibly a discrepancy between the way the review appears in print and online, a conversation between the writer and the venue and/or performers etc, etc.
In the days when I was sat behind a desk in Herald towers rather than tripping merrily between concert halls and theatres and sending sentences from wherever I lay my hat, this was by far the single most common error that required sorting out. You can appreciate, then, why I am not a fan of stars. In fact I fought a rearguard – and plainly doomed – action against them when the editor of The Herald at the
time insisted on their introduction, after they became commonplace in London papers.
“They are for people who count but don’t read,” I wailed, arguing that I wanted the carefully considered words of The Herald’s respected team of critics to be fully consumed, not scanned for the number of dingbats at the top. This principled stance is, I regret, easily trumped by a few factual observations in defence of stars as being what the same editor called “entry points” for the reader.
At the time when the argument over them was still a live one, I tried adopting a maximalist strategy of insisting they were attached to inappropriate copy to illustrate their absurdity. Our new literary editor unwittingly undermined that tactic by giving a brutal two stars to a book festival appearance by intellectual giant Susan Sontag, thus ensuring that everyone read her report to find out why.
Conversely a billboard advertising campaign for Paolo Nutini’s most recent album consisted simply of the cover art and a constellation of five-star ratings next to the name of the publication in which they appeared. The Herald’s rave review was conspicuously absent because, for historical reasons that probably only I now know, album reviews have always appeared in this newspaper without star ratings. Of which, of course, I heartily approve. Except in that instance.
Of course, star ratings don’t “mean” anything and every writer applies them in their own way, so consistency is impossible. And I do sometimes go for three or five. Generally, though, the pejorative is true: I favour four. Is it fair? That’s up to you to judge by reading the 300 or so words below them. (I reckon that means I win.)