Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Should critics respond?

I'm a frequent user of Google Alerts. They help me track a variety of topics for the blogs that I write. They also help me protect my writing by alerting me to instances of plagiarism. Today in my Google Alerts an old item popped up--though it was one I had never seen before.

An actress who was in a play that I gave a bad review to (and we'll keep her nameless to protect the guilty) took great exception to what I wrote. Well, no, actually, she didn't contest anything in my review. Instead she launched into a cruel, personal attack which I won't reproduce here because I prefer to use slightly more refined language in this blog--or at least language that I wouldn't be ashamed of having the children I teach read. Despite never having met me, she made certain assumptions about my background and my personality which I suppose she rightly felt she could infer from what I had written. Sadly, she chose epitaphs that were inherently sexist and terms that she wouldn't likely use if she took similar umbrage for any of my male colleagues.

On one hand, my inclination is to shrug this sort of thing off. I don't write reviews for actors; I write them for potential audience members and to encourage participation in the theater community at large. That requires me to be an honest observer and critic of what I experience. If I simply promote, then I lose credibility with anyone who knows better (which I'm willing to assume is 99.9% of my readers). Likewise, I feel I owe a production enough respect that they would rather have an honest assessment than false praise. The latter is condescending and I have no desire to be patronizing.

I understand that actors need to say and do whatever they need to so that they can get back up on stage and out in front of an audience again. That's not an easy thing to do no matter how experienced the actor is. Egos can be a fragile thing and I have no problem with people doing what they need to do to not only protect themselves but to enable themselves to take the stage night after night. It's why I rather think it healthy for actors to vent about critics backstage or at cast parties.

That said, if you're going to publish a complaint, I daresay there are slightly different standards to what you write. I recognize that when I critique a work, the artists involved are going to take that criticism personally, even though the review is not personal. Until someone has a great deal of experience at it, it is difficult to separate the professional from the personal. If you're not able to do so, you may want to think carefully about what you put out for public consumption as the manure you throw has a nasty habit of clinging to your own hands and may fall far wide of your target.

My inclination has always been that it is better for a critic to not publically respond to personal attacks (or even letters to the editor) with anything more than a "thank you for your opinion." In part, that's because of all the things listed above. You can't have a rational argument with an emotion. I also choose to establish pretty firm boundaries to protect myself from people who choose to be abusive--which includes not giving them the respect inherent in a drawn-out debate or discussion.

As for a private response to such attacks? Well, that's why we have friends and colleagues to vent with. It's not why I personally have a blog or newsprint space.

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