The price of artistic agony

Let’s hear it for Svetlana Voronina. Who she, I hear you cry?

The redoubtable Ms Voronina has taken a case to court in Russia, suing the Bolshoi Theatre for 1 million roubles: the price of her ticket back, and damages “for the moral agony experienced when watching the performance” of Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila in the controversial staging by Dmitri Chernyakov which reopened the theatre after its gadzillion-dollar restoration.

Sadly, the case was thrown out, but bravo to Ms Voronina, for quantifying the agony. A million roubles is £21,000, or $34,000, so it’s not as though she were asking for a lifetime of luxury for having to endure what she described as “a refined psychological experiment on the audience, a mockery of Glinka and his opera”.

Certainly I’ve sat through performances like that — a particularly nasty Calixto Bieto Don Giovanni at ENO comes to mind, and I once endured The Phantom of the Opera — compensation is surely owing to me for having to watch that sodding chandelier go up and down and up and down — the most moving part of the evening.

So let’s think of who else to sue — nominations?

‘Either way I find you disgraceful’

Well, we’re back to ‘what/who are critics for’ this morning. I reviewed a new (excellent) production of Sweeney Todd on Tuesday night (here). I liked it a lot (the clue was in the five stars I gave it). There were elements I liked less, which I covered — mostly the casting of Michael Ball as Sweeney. I didn’t hate him, but didn’t think he was great either. I thought he did ‘well enough’, but wasn’t, ultimately, charismatic enough, or vocally strong enough, to carry this really heavy part.

So far, I would have thought, so uncontentious. Lord knows, I’ve given much more negative views with monotonous regularity. But apparently not. Hot on the heels of the review came this beautiful thought from [name suppressed to protect the very silly]:

Read your review of Sweeney Todd. Interesting to me that, when everyone else is praising Michael Ball, you chose to be negative. I am not sure whether you have some personal grudge or you are just in the wrong profession. Either way I find you disgraceful.

The immediate urge, naturally, was to respond, ‘Mum, I told you never to write to me at work!’ I heroically suppressed it, though with regret.

But this email continues my ongoing fascination with how we regard reviews, and critics, which seems to reflect on how we regard art itself.

First of all, it assumes that a general view (‘everyone else’) is by definition correct — that, indeed, there is a correct, and therefore an incorrect, view of any single performer. Then, even if I accepted that, which of course I don’t, it extrapolates to assume there are only two reasons for dissenting from the general view: personal animus, or incompetence.

I might, of course, indulge in both. I might nurture a secret hatred for Michael Ball because he hit me on the head with a Lego brick when we were in kindergarten. (Disclaimer: I was not in kindergarten with Michael Ball. To the best of my recollection, I have never been hit on the head with a Lego brick by anyone, although I think many have wanted to.) I might also be entirely unable to tell a good performance from a bad one. The former would be unacceptable, and I should rightly be unemployable if that were the case. (I mean, not about the Lego, you understand: the secret-hatred-disguised-as-a-review.) And I might be incompetent. Which should also make me unemployable.

But the odd thing about this email was that my reservations about Ball were a couple of lines in an otherwise rave review. I unilaterally declared Imelda Staunton a Living National Treasure (to be protected by legislation). I liked the direction, the set and the lighting. In that I was in agreement with most other reviewers. So does that mean the emailer thought I was only incompetent for one paragraph, and competent for the remainder? Did she wonder if I had a personal connection to Ms Staunton, or Messrs Kent, Ward and Henderson, which meant I was prejudiced in their favour, and thus ‘disgraceful’ once more?

I realize I’m attempting to make sense out of what makes no sense. But I’m interested because these views make no sense in a very common way: they suggest that there are absolutes in the arts, that things are either good or bad, and that collective wisdom can recognize this. Both elements of this idea are, to put it in academic critico-theoretical-speak, horseshit.

There. I feel better now. Bring on the Lego!



Goodness, what a fuss

The Booker shortlist is announced, to predictable screaming and whining. What, no Hollinghurst? What, no Barry, no Ali Smith, no this no that no the other? Boyd Tonkin in the Independent writes that we need to ‘fix’ the prize, which has apparently gone woefully astray, in order to ‘issue a final, authoritative verdict on the year’ (that is a quote from someone, possibly Julian Barnes, although it’s not quite clear).

Oh yeah? And how do we do that? Who does that? Whose finality? Whose authority? They’re books. It’s a matter of taste, for God’s sake, I want to scream (and sometimes do, but quietly, so as not to frighten the horses).

Hollinghurst wasn’t chosen. Well, the earth has obviously tilted on its axis. Even if you think The Stranger’s Child was perfection (and I didn’t – the opening section was astonishing, and then it just faded away to a series of random encounters) – even if you did think it was perfection, it was one of hundreds of books, and there were only six slots. It’s like the annual newspaper story of the student with umpty-eleven starred A-levels who doesn’t get into Cambridge. Well, no, says rationality; s/he didn’t, because there were another couple of hundred students with umpty-eleven starred A-levels too. It doesn’t mean the student’s no good, or the novel’s no good, just that there are a finite number of places and a combination of taste, circumstance and sheer bloody random chance selected others for the slot.

We can’t ‘fix’ the prize, because it’s perfectly obvious (or it is if you’re not required to churn out the annual newspaper column of angst) that this is the deal: this bunch of people chose that bunch of books; another bunch would chose something else.

There is no final, no independent authority. Much like life, really. Which may be what people really object to.

Women’s reads, or reading women?

One for the sisterhood. A complaint to W. H. Smith has brought about a change to the way some books are labelled. Books by and for women – ‘Women’s fiction’ – will no longer be labelled as such. Books by and for women, in W. H. Smith, are now, ahem, ‘fiction’.

This separation, this discrimination and ghetto-ization, of course, originally came from good intentions – it was, as the US military would say, ‘blowback’, the law of unintended consequences.

Women were being squeezed out of the market, with books by men predominating. So ‘women’s fiction’ shelves were created. But did that mean that Charlotte Brontë and Mary Shelley, or even Joan Didion and Anne Patchett, were moved there? No, the first two went to ‘Classics’, the second to ‘literature’, or even ‘poetry’. Toni Morrison to ‘Fiction by women of colour’. Others went to ‘Gender studies’. Until, finally, of course, ‘Fiction’ was entirely inhabited by white males (usually heterosexual: don’t forget ‘Gay fiction’).

And ‘Women’s fiction’ had pink covers, lots of gold embossing and the odd picture of a pair of shoes.

Women write more books, women read more books, they make up the audiences at readings by possibly as much as 10 to 1. But they get less space: physical, in the bookstores, and mental, in reviews, both as reviewers and reviewed, and I suspect from a quick look (subtext: don’t hold me to this one, please), many literary festivals.

W. H. Smith has taken a step towards, if not giving them more space, at least removing them from a tokenist shelving ghetto.

Update on boy-scout reviewing: Amazon drummed out of the corps

I posted yesterday on Amazon’s policy of promoting ‘helpful’ reviews – positive reviews for books get their reviewers freebies, while negative reviews don’t. Today’s Amazon gem is that they are offering a horsetrade on what in the publishing industry are known as blurbs – those sentences on the cover that say ‘I couldn’t put it down – Leo Tolstoy’. Amazon it has been revealed (here) is sending Amazon-published books to authors, and asking for blurbs, offering to promote the blurbing author’s work in exchange. So now, every time Leo T. sends in a puff, War and Peace and any other books he has written (I believe there were some) get promotional pushes from Amazon.

As with the reviewing, it’s a question of who benefits, and as with all monopolies and single supply-chains, it is not the consumer. When consumers receive promotional material saying Leo T. is the best thing since Fyodor D.’s book about sibling rivalry, there is no way for them to know it is because Leo wrote a puff saying Amazon’s self-published book on the Siege of Leningrad was tops.

It doesn’t really matter if it is tops or not. It’s the lack of information. When a publisher asks Leo to blurb a book, the publisher doesn’t do it by sending a letter saying ‘We’ll push your book harder’ – apart from anything else, because the publisher has no real way of doing that: publishers don’t own bookstores, don’t have control over reviews. It may be that Leo supplies blurbs because he wants to be ‘in’ with that publisher/editor; it may be that he does it because he wants his name connected with that particular book or author; it may even be that he does it because he likes the book. But there is no tangible reward, no kick-back.

The editor/publisher may think more kindly of him. (That and a dime will get him a cup of coffee, in my experience.) It may do him some good if the book does well, as more people will see his name. But there is no secret pay-off: it’s all there, open, on the cover of the book in front of the consumer.

Certainly, if there is secret backscratching going on, I’ve never been offered any. Which is, of course, outrageous.

Points for ‘helpfulness’: Boy-scout reviewing?

OK, we’re back on reviewing. Everyone has (rightly) been wary of Amazon’s ‘reviews’ — an agent highlighted one review a few weeks ago where the ‘reviewer’ gave a dismissive one-star review to a book that s/he admitted to not having read. (S/he didn’t like the idea of it, apparently.) But on the whole, many people still skim down a line of reviews, looking at the overall positive/negative feedback, even while accepting that many of the reviews are negative ‘because I couldn’t identify with any of the characters’ or similar reasons that will have no effect on any other reader.

However, it is also worth remembering that the ‘top’ Amazon reviewers are also receiving free books and merchandise, and their position as ‘top’ reviewers is contingent not merely on the number of reviews that they write, as I had previously thought, but on the positive nature of their reviews. Amazon says quite straightforwardly that ‘overall helpfulness’ should be the focus of the reviews. And, not surprisingly from a retailer who makes its substantial pile from selling books, ‘helpfulness’ does not equate to a review that says ‘Save your pennies, this book is a steaming pile of shite.’

So instead, the reviewers, who not unreasonably since they are unpaid, want their free books, beaver away as some sort of literary version of P. G. Wodehouse’s Edwin the Boy-Scout, performing last week but one’s Daily Act of Kindness. The problem is, they are being kind to Amazon, not to the users of the site. Those people are being suckered into spending money on things that the reviewer doesn’t actually like: not kind at all.

I have a suggestion, although it’s an odd one. Why don’t readers rely on reviewers who get paid, and whose reviews appear in independent forums? I know, we could call them ‘book review sections’, and they could be printed in, mmm, perhaps newspapers and magazines? Just an idea.

Nah, probably won’t work.


Is this a womb I see before me?

There’s nothing I like more than a good online quiz first thing in the morning, so I have to thank V. S. Naipaul (not, I admit, words I ever thought to string together in a sentence) for his Look at Me, Mummy, Look, Look! publicity rant, in which he stated that he knew (just knew) within a paragraph whether a piece of prose had been written by a man or a woman. The Guardian has done us the kind good service of setting up a quiz, to see if this is indeed the case. (Of course, VSN has the obvious response – if it turns out that most readers don’t know the difference, it’s because we’re not as smart as he is; if we do, case proven. See? Well, you would if you were a man. And as smart as VSN.)

I don’t see, but that’s because we women are little fluffy things, only concerned with the trivial and the domestic and sentimenta—  Oh, wait, is that a kitten I see? Awwww… Oh, sorry, got distracted. And then there’s my ribbon-drawer to tidy up, and then – oh, when I ask, am I going to have time to do such big macho things as sit and write?

Certainly it would have been better if Jane Austen had stuck to her tatting. Her novels, after all, are just sentimental, says the sage of Chromosomal Prose. And as for his ex-editor, who was so good as a ‘taster’ (oh kill me now, please) and editor, when she became a writer, ‘lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh’. Tosh, I tell you, tosh! Although just a teeny-tiny insy-wincy bit of me wonders if his views might just possibly be influenced by the fact that in her first book this very same editor described the feelings of joy and lightness she experienced when VSN took his masculine-prose self off to another publisher, and she realized she wouldn’t have to pretend to like him, or even listen to his woes any more.

Nah, I’m sure he’s above such things.

Oh deary deary me. Well, he’s a sad, bitter, lonely old man. Feel sorry for him. I do. It’s the kind of girlie sentimentality I’m programmed for.

Critical thinking: reviews redux

I know, I know, I go on about reviews and reviewing, but apart from personal feelings, they matter. I was recently criticized in a chat-forum (link omitted for reasons of taste) for being ‘mean’ to some of the New York City Ballet dancers who appeared in London on a tour (I said they weren’t very good). The feelings of the post-ers was that the some of the dancers I had mentioned were young, and replacing more senior dancers who were injured and unable to appear. This of course is a chronic problem for dance companies.

But in a way, as a reviewer, it is none of my business. Instead, the question for me as a reviewer, is who am I writing for? The dancers? I don’t think so: not my job. My job, is to give my opinion and (hopefully) an informed perspective based on wide viewing over (ahem) four decades, to explain why I think something is good, bad or indifferent; but it is also to say to potential audiences, ‘go/don’t go’. The top price tickets at the Coliseum for that tour were £90: give or take, $150. My responsibility is not to be kind to dancers, but to say, ‘Yes, spend your money here’; ‘No, don’t bother, not worth it.’

I covered the Royal Ballet’s most recent Triple Bill last night (reviewed here). I had recently seen their new Alice in Wonderland, and didn’t much care for it (review in TLS forthcoming). But the Triple was a thrill, and I left the theatre remembering why it is I am so passionate about this art-form. My review is not so much a review, as an attempt to recreate that thrill: I was giving a little of the history of Ashton’s Rhapsody, to be sure, but also saying, ‘God, yes, rush right over and grab a fistful of tickets! This is the performance and the dancer you want to tell your grandchildren you saw!’

And I think most people recognize that these are the elements of reviewing. There is a fascinating piece today in the WSJ (here) on the truly farcical situation the Cleveland Orchestra has got itself into. Short version: the Cleveland Orchestra hated the reviews that the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s critic was writing about them. Instead of kicking the newspaper around (my preferred method), it kicked the newspaper’s hierarchy around. And the newspaper responded by getting rid of the critic. The story is long and messy and depressing. But the upshot, apparently, is that the orchestra has now hired itself a pet: a ‘critic-in-residence’ to produce a blog filled with bright and shiny features about their wonderfulness.

He writes on his (orchestra-approved) blog: ‘Comment on the concert you are about to experience. Review if you wish, if you must.’ Where to start with those sentences? Listeners/audiences should comment before they hear the concert? Comment on what? The performance that hasn’t happened? Then they should review it, ‘if you must‘? — that is, if you can’t control your disgusting impules to prefer one style over another, commend some artistic decisions while feeling others have not succeeded? According to the WSJ, this c-i-r’s own judgement is nuanced and delicate: one piece ends: ‘As my 18-year-old jock hip-hopper college freshman would say, “What a beast!”‘

Readers and audiences are not fooled by this kind of non-criticism, and even more, they are not interested in it; the blog is garnering about three comments a month. Being criticized is no fun. I know. I’ve been there, and no doubt will be there again. But I’m a big girl, and as long as a review is about my work, not about my haircut, my morals or my nasty habit of eating cashews with my mouth open, it’s fine. Not fun, but fine. I’ve even learnt from reviews, and taken things on board in my next books.

I’m sure those NYCB dancers I was ‘mean’ about are fine too. And probably the Cleveland Orchestra musicians are too (if not their trembly bosses).

And do go and see Sergei Polunin in Rhapsody. You won’t regret it.

Reviews and reviewers: the best revenge

Reviews, it should be unnecessary to state, are not generally libellous, even when they are sour, bad-tempered and malign. Sounds uncontentious, no? But in France, a case has been working its way through the courts, attempting to prove just the opposite.

In 2007 a professor at NYU’s School of Law, Joseph Weiler, who edits a website, Global Law Books, posted a review by Professor Thomas Weigend, of the University of Cologne, of a book by Karin Calvo-Goller, a lecturer in Israel, catchily entitled The Trial Proceedings of the International Criminal Court.

Ms Calvo-Goller took exception to the review, which suggested her analytical grasp of the subject was weak. She asked the website to remove the review, which it refused to do, although it offered her space to respond. She declined.

I’ve taken exception to reviews of my books, too, but it has never occurred to me to do what Ms Calvo-Goller did, which was to go venue-shopping for libel. Despite a Dutch publisher, a New York-based website, an Israeli academic and a German reviewer, she sued Professor Weiler for criminal (yup, you got that right) libel in the French courts (the reviewer was not named in the suit).

Professor Weiler has now won. The case has been dismissed, and he has been awared punitive damages. He has posted a fascinating article on his defence here.

But really, as a writer, my question is, who sues for libel over a nasty review? There are plenty of well-respected and time-tested methods for dealing with other people’s poor opinions of your work when they appear in print.

a) Kick newspaper across room; if shoes are damp and they leave dirty footprints on paper, so much the better; if not, decorate reviewer’s byline photgraph with buck teeth and extra-large ears, plus a little five o’clock shadow (for a woman) or cleavage (a man);

b) Over a period of days, remind everyone within earshot that you had intentionally set out to do whatever it is the reviewer says you have done by accident (omitted to deal with major facet of x, y or z; relocated city to wrong continent, etc.);

c) Over a period of weeks, start to spread rumour of said reviewer’s interesting sexual proclivities. Begin, ‘Don’t tell anyone, but…’ (When recipient of innuendo replies, ‘Did you see her review of your book?’ look amazed, and say ‘Oh no, really?’);

d) After a few months, modify: when reviewer’s name is mentioned, simply smile sadly, shake your head and say, ‘Poor thing’. When asked why, look mysteriously regretful;

e) For years, know that you really really really dislike this person, even if you can no longer quite remember why;

f) Finally, meet her at party; have lovely conversation; swap email addresses, pictures of children, annoying habits of the editor you now share, before you realize who it is you are talking to;

g) Move on…

And after your second or third book, recognize that (a) to (e) can all be encompassed in the five minutes you spend kicking the newspaper across the room. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and that’s all a review is. Just skip to (f). Even if you don’t want to. Smile. Be polite. Revenge is behaving well.

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