Sense and Sensationalism
This response to a recent LA Weekly editorial by Steven Leigh Morris was sent to Bitter Lemons by a reader who has no pony in the race. She doesn’t live in Los Angeles, nor does she see any LA theater. She just likes a good argument, and dislikes a bad arguer. We asked her whether it would be alright for us to publish her notes, and she said she thought it would be a good idea. So here they are, with a headline for which she shouldn’t be blamed because Jason made it up:
Sense and Sensationalism
A quick disclosure before we dive in. From 1999 to 2007 I wrote for a now-defunct website that provided detailed recaps of television shows. I spent about 4 more years as a site admin. We did not do formal reviews, but the recaps were heavy on criticism and mockery; it was explicitly not a “fan” site. The site’s owners made enough money to pay the staff by taking ads, including ads for TV shows we covered. The site was eventually purchased by a cable network. I never experienced any pressure to censor or soft-pedal my opinions. So in my experience it is quite possible to provide honest criticism even when you are being paid, indirectly or directly, by the subject of the critique.
I apologize in advance for the length but I need to take Steven Leigh Morris’s LA Weekly piece in order, starting with Morris’s headline: “A New Scheme to Have Shows Pay $150 for a Review Will Hurt L.A. Theater.” The piece does not support this. Ever. It contains zero arguments that theater itself, as an institution in Los Angeles, will be directly affected.
In paragraph two, Morris says that the Bitter Lemons Imperative “rips up a long-standing covenant between critics and readers that the critics’ public writings are financially independent of the subjects they’re covering.” I won’t rehash ”http://socal.bitter-lemons.com/learn/article/2364" target="_blank">the points Jason Rohrer already made, but: if your theater coverage is supported by advertising or donations from theaters and artists, that doesn’t seem particularly independent either. I personally don’t believe that complete financial independence is required. But if Morris believes there is a bright, clear line between what he does and what Bitter Lemons is doing, I think he needs to articulate that more clearly.
Morris continues,“[T]here are two victims: the readers, and the art of criticism itself.” Still not L.A. Theater, the headline notwithstanding. But we have two victims identified, that’s something! Let’s see how, or if, Morris supports this claim.
In paragraph four, Morris supposes that if a customer is unhappy with a review, “producers are free to purchase a second review for another $150, and hope things go better on the next spin.” This seems odd. If producers do not like their review, I think their first response is likely to be, “We won’t do that again.” There is no indication that anyone has actually said “I’m unhappy about that review, so here’s more money; send another critic.” Even if that happened, would Colin agree to it? If the second review was also bad, does Morris sincerely believe they might request a third? Am I allowed at some point to puncture hypotheticals with “Who on earth would actually do that?” I hope so. If you’re willing to go that far, I can’t help but note that it would require considerably less effort for everyone if theaters simply paid Bitter Lemons not to review their shows at all. I suppose that this might qualify as extortion, but at least readers and the art of criticism would be safe. [Interestingly, Stage Raw has been retweeting this recent Playbill article, which lifts from Morris’s Weekly piece, verbatim, the supposition that a producer may buy a second review if she doesn’t like the first. – JR]
Rohrer’s piece has already noted that the sixth paragraph is factually wrong, so I can skip that.
Now we get to the arguments from authority! A classic bit. First we are told that the literary manager of the Royal Court Theatre does not approve of the BLI. We get no further support or explanation as to why he holds that opinion, but a Brit disapproves; case closed. Then a statement by the American Theater Critics Association is mentioned, with a handy source link not to the ATCA site but to Stage Raw, without any disclosure that this is Morris linking to his own ad-sponsored, competing review site. In a sentence about conflict of interest. It is extraordinarily rare to find a trifecta of hypocrisy like this in the wild, and I’m just glad I lived to see it.
By the way, ATCA’s statement explains that the BLI is worrying because it “bypasses editorial judgment,” so let’s discuss that for a moment. Editorial judgment is not based on visions from an oracle. It is based on a combination of the editor’s taste, and on what the editor thinks readers have a particular interest in, for whatever reason. These aren’t terrible reasons to review a play, but they are not free of the potential for bias, and they are never stated explicitly. With the BLI, you know exactly why the review was done. To assert that editorial judgment is inherently superior suggests that it is better for readers if they can only guess as to why one show was reviewed and another was not.
The ninth paragraph is just bewildering. As best I can tell, it is hypocritical for Bitter Lemons to offer a paid service that may appeal to small theaters, because Bitter Lemons has supported small theaters and, arguably, the Pro99 movement. Again, one must assume it is not hypocritical to charge small theaters to advertise on Bitter Lemons, or on Stage Raw; the reason that one is good and the other is bad remains as murky as ever. There’s a hint that he might think the fee is too high; if that is the sticking point then it seems as if, as the man said, we’re just haggling over the price.
This is also where Morris explains that some people describe the BLI as predatory “because of the way it preys” on small theaters. (We shall see another example of Morris’s mastery of the reflexive property later.) I do agree that the theaters most likely to make use of this service are those who don’t expect any reviews at all otherwise. Smaller theaters, with smaller budgets, that are not covered by traditional venues with an editor who makes assignments. So yes, this is a service that is probably of more interest to a particular group of artists. I see nothing that explains how giving an opportunity for coverage to an underserved group causes injury to readers, artists, or the art of criticism.
In paragraph 10 (of 14!), Morris announces that he has his own core objections to the BLI, which makes me wonder why he spent so much time on this other stuff. Anyway, he says: “The critic should be the last person on any creator’s mind, just as the critics’ primary relationship needs to be with readers, not theaters.” Ah ha! This, finally, gets us back to why readers and criticism itself are victims of the BLI. Exciting!
I find this genuinely interesting for a number of reasons. The first being, yes, this is a philosophical objection, not an ethical one. Morris proposes that the critic is providing a service to the audience, not the artist. Rohrer, for one, has explained that he believes his responsibility is to communicate his opinion to the artist. When I wrote recaps, I think I took a middle position: when I liked something in particular, I enjoyed communicating my appreciation to other members of the viewing audience. When I did not like something, I was more interested in explaining my dissatisfaction to those making the show, knowing they could take or leave it. (Yes, people involved with productions were known to read our recaps sometimes.) I would actually enjoy a discussion about these different critical approaches, especially if it was untangled from assertions that having a different philosophy of criticism was a moral failing and a threat to theater, family, God, and America.
Morris’s “core objection” is also particularly interesting because he said something very different at last year’s Bitter Lemons Critics Panel. (Jump to 24:50 if the link doesn’t work.) In a discussion of the relevance of criticism, Morris notes that very few people read theater reviews now, and then says: “Are [theater critics] of value? The first people we probably speak to are the people creating the theater.”
I think I am done considering Morris’s philosophical objections.
We’re in the home stretch! In paragraph 12 he worries that a critic’s opinion might be influenced by money, or by the perception that her opinion can be bought. Sure. But he does not worry that critics will be influenced by personal connections (positive or negative) with the performers. He does not worry that critics will be influenced by a good meal, by traffic conditions, by a death in the family, by another member of the audience. There are a thousand things that might influence a critic’s reaction to a show. The critic is a critic because she is aware of those influences and, we hope, attempts to separate them from the art. If the BLI adds two more influences, well, at least they seem to balance each other out.
Paragraph 13 is another favorite of mine. First, Morris says there is “some merit” in that theaters provide comp tickets to critics, and that could be seen as a form of payment. The next sentence is: “But the difference between access to a service already rendered, with or without the critic, is quite a different matter from cash over the table.”
The difference… is quite a different matter. Look at that fucking sentence. Look at it! I’ve spent so much time writing all this, and now I realize I’m arguing with someone who thinks “the difference is that they’re different” is convincing rhetoric. This is embarrassing for everyone. Anyway, after saying they’re different he changes his mind again and says that it’s a slippery slope, so in conclusion they’re similar, but different, and it’s a slippery slope. Got it.
There’s not much after that; Morris recounts an unidentified Facebook comment to no clear purpose, and wraps up with one more unsupported assertion that the BLI is being pitched purely as a marketing tool for theaters.
But enough of this. If we ignore the unsupported assertions, errors of fact, arguments from authority, rhetorical embarrassments, and ethical conflicts in Morris’s argument then we are left with… no argument at all, that I can identify.