Here’s a thoughtful essay on criticism and the authority of the critic: “Just Who Is This Guy?” by Jerome Weeks.
Weeks looks primarily at the authority of literary blogs, which have been under attack of late from print media, primarily the book reviews of the mass media. But the same issues come into play for any critic, online or off.
(Thanks to Rob Walker’s Murketing for highlighting the Weeks post.)
I face these questions all the time, mostly because …
…I set myself up in positions of authority all the time, despite having no measurable background in related areas. Freelance web developer, writing coach (at Fat Plum), editor of a literary magazine (Inkburns … still on hiatus although hopefully back in production this year)… the list goes on. In each case, my authority came from my own faith in my knowledge, skill, and opinion, and in whatever belief others choose to place in me.
In each case, over time I figured out what I was doing, until I had real authority in each subject. You might think that I’d gain confidence in these past successes. In many cases I have, but not in all.
Which brings us to my current dilemma: Since October, City Theatre has invited me to attend their productions and to blog about them. Now, I love live theater, and I feel that the theatrical community is a great asset of Pittsburgh. I want to see all the theater I can, and I love to promote it to everyone I meet.
From the start we agreed that I didn’t need to write regular reviews. City Theatre, in keeping with their overall experimental, open-minded approach to everything, wanted simply to see what happens and to explore the blogging medium — and besides, the mass media in Pittsburgh already supplies the critical reviews and exposure the theater needs.
For me, this was a safety net. I’ve not studied theater or theater criticism, I’ve worked behind the scenes and performed in only a few community theater productions, and generally I’ve felt insecure about the whole thing.
There’s also the issue of disclosure: If City Theater gives me two free tickets to every play, shouldn’t I say something nice about them? If I don’t, would they invite me back?
I realized all along that that was exactly the wrong question. The other theater reviewers in Pittsburgh don’t feel any obligation to the theater — they know their duty is to the readers. The theater needs reviewers more than reviewers need free tickets. So it has been more my super-sense of my amateur status and some personal insecurities that have held me back.
The thing is this: I’ve been avoiding writing about the productions themselves. I’ve written about the ideas behind the plays, and things the plays made me think about, etc…. but I haven’t written about the acting, the direction, the set design. Which is OK except that I have plenty (plenty) of opinions about these elements. And worse, my thoughts about the productions keep jumping up in my head when I try to write about other things. They’ve become a kind of hyper writer’s block, with the result that I write no blog entries at all.
No more. I owe you, my dear reader, quite a bit more than this. And I owe City Theatre more as well. They are a terrific company — with their share of faults like any theater, but also with amazing strength and warmth and flexibility. They can handle my criticisms, amateur though they will be.
Let the show go on.