‘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!



A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.

Editathon-ing away, the Victorians rule the waves!

Well, that’s a Saturday spent usefully. No, I haven’t joined the Boy Scouts — although it’s a thought. Instead I spent the day at a seminar organized by the British Library in conjunction with Wikipedia. From the BL’s point of view, it was a way of promoting its special collections and areas of interest to a wider audience, and particularly to those who cannot travel to the library itself.

The group seemed to be mostly divided between computer-folk and Eng.Lit. people, with the odd sprinkling of historians (well, one, I think, me) and a classical music person, plus a table-ful of enthusiastic sci-fi-ers.  (Did you know it was a BL speciality? Well, now you do.) Plus Lauren Collins from the New Yorker, taking notes so as to write us all up, we assume as hopelessly comic characters.

We split up into groups to create pages highlighting different areas of the BL collection that we were interested in. The table I was on was Victorian, and we produced Wikipedia pages on Barry Ono, whose train-spotterishly vast collection of penny-dreadfuls is now owned by the BL; on Andrew Forrester, who wrote short-stories with one of the very first female detectives; on Ruth Traill, as far as I have determined, the first fictional female detective; and on a late Victorian novelist whose name I have shamefully forgotten.  I also added a bawdy 1830s song about the fire that destroyed the old Houses of Parliament to the Burning of Parliament page, just to lower the tone.

At lunchtime we broke off to find out what everyone else had been doing, and lo and behold, the Victorians had conquered the world — the sci-fi buffs had been working on Mary Shelley and the Brontë’s juvenilia; the poetry table on Victorian poets; and even those working on the BL table had focused on their 19th-century collections.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from this, although I’m damned if I know what it is. In the meantime, if you need a rude drinking song, check out Wikipedia’s Burning of Parliament page.

The Literary-Agent Hyphothesis

A great blog (here) by ‘The Contented Librarian’ (and a great blog-name!), listing 40 literary terms ‘you should know’. I’m not quite sure who the ‘you’ is, since the list seems to veer from the latinate rhetorical terms I was expecting from the title (meiosis) to what seem to me to be everyday common-or-garden speech for people who read (bowdlerize).

But of course a list, any list, is fun, and one where you can score yourself is even better. I didn’t know four, which I think is pretty good. The one I like best, however, is a new one on me: ‘the literary-agent hypothesis’. Contrary to my immediate Paranoid Author Response, this does not indicate that my agent is planning to sack me, or that all the literary agents in London are in a room, and they Are Laughing At Us, but is instead a lit. crit. concept that the author is only the agent for the characters, who are in fact writing the novel, or, as I feel certain the people who discuss this theory say, the ‘text’.

‘Purple prose’, I would have thought, didn’t need a definition. It’s like porn, and everyone knows it when they see it. (In my own case, it is easily identified by the fact that my eyeballs roll so far back in my head that I can see my tonsils whenever I stumble across some.) But perhaps the Contented Librarian’s definition is better: ‘Any text referring to eyes as “orbs” without any sort of irony is automatically guilty of this linguistic sometimes-offense. No matter what. No exceptions. Also, every romance novel ever written. Even if a long-lost manuscript attributed to Bukowski ever materialized and proved a romance novel, it would still be made of purple prose.’

Works for me.

Was Eeyore an author?

The busy mind, never at rest. Informed by the Guardian (here) that Eeyore turns 140 today, I reread some of the quotes they attribute to that immortal donkey for the first time since childhood, and now, with the wisdom of experience, I realize with blazing clarity that Eeyore was an author.

My friends have long known me as the Eeyore of the publishing world. Everything is done with a sigh. ‘Yes, that’s great,’ I say dolefully, looking at the ground and tracing a pattern with my foot. ‘Mmm, fab,’ I add hopelessly.

But All is Now Revealed. Eeyore is my role-model in career, as well as enthusiasm. It’s not merely the popped balloon birthday presents. It’s not even the notion that someone, somewhere is having fun. It’s the knowledge that everyone, everywhere is having fun. Just. Not. Here.

And the dizzying social life that authors crave: ‘Somebody spoke to me only yesterday,’ says Eeyore bravely. ‘And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said “Bother!” The Social Round. Always something going on.’

Authors across the world will hug themselves in recognition. Yes! Exactly. A surly teen stepped on my foot yesterday and said, ‘Jesus Christ! Get out of the way!’ AND IT WAS THE MOST EXCITING THING THAT HAD HAPPENED TO ME ALL WEEK. As well as the warmest social interaction.

Eeyore. Mon semblable, mon frere!

Not a reader, just book-ish

Hmm, so publishers finally catch up with Foyle’s, do they? A million years ago, when I was a slip of a gel — well, in the 1980s, maybe even the 1990s — Foyle’s bookshop used to shelve its books, not by subject, nor by genre, nor even by colour of jacket, but by publisher. Yup, if you wanted to buy a copy of Ulysses, or Agatha Christie, or The Galloping Gourmet (or was that a television programme? It was a long time ago), you had to know who published it. Which was, of course, absurd.

Foyle’s did it because it was easy for the staff. Not, of course, the staff dealing with bewildered or irate customers. But the staff shelving, and the staff ordering, copies. The publisher’s sales-rep came in, they pointed him or her to the ‘Penguin’ shelves, s/he looked at what was needed, and put in an order. All hotsty-totsy, apart from those poor saps who actually wanted to buy books. (Which they did somewhere else. So Foyle’s almost disintegrated. But that’s another story.)

For possibly as much as a decade, publishers have been acting like Christina Foyle: they have set up websites to promote ‘their’ books, and ‘their’ authors. (By the way, can I tell publishers how not-enchanted authors are to be referred to by this possessive?) But readers don’t think, ‘Hmm, I’d like to buy a Macmillan title now. Gee, I wonder what they’re offering? I know, I’ll go to their website and see!’

I don’t even know why I had to type that last sentence out, it is so obvious. But not to publishers, apparently. Anyway, they have just as apparently Seen the Light.  Hachette, Simon and Schuster and Penguin are setting up bookish.com, which will be run, they claim, independently, to present a one-stop shop for all books by all publishers.

Well, I look forward. Who knows? But I’ve got to say, the website’s name stinks. Bookish, wow, what a come-on. How incredibly whole-hearted of the industry. It’s like the old Jonathan Miller joke. He was asked if he was a Jew. ‘Not a Jew,’ he demurred, ‘more Jewish. Not,’ he added confidingly, ‘not the whole hog, you know.’

Book-ish. A few pages short of a whole index?

Back-to-front working

Over the weekend, the novelist Richard Ford wrote a piece on the vocabulary of what he does (here). I use this circuitous phrase because he isn’t sure that what he does is work. It’s an interesting, if somewhat odd piece, in that such a nuanced writer seems to not notice that there is a difference between ‘a job’ and ‘work’. He works, he just doesn’t have a job.

For Ford, it appears, work must be tiring, physically or mentally, and unpleasant. If you enjoy it, you are not working. (This is reductive, of course: his position is more complicated than that. But while reductive, it’s not a distortion of what he is saying.) Ford was born in 1944, and his views were formed, not unnaturally, in the Great Depression: you were lucky to have a job, and most likely you didn’t enjoy it. Yet he overlooks the many groups of people who both have a job and work, and enjoy what they do: barristers making a killer argument, GPs arriving at a tricky diagnosis, teachers finding a rewarding pupil. All enjoy their jobs, yet it is still work.

Does ‘work’ have to be tiring, dull and repetitive to qualify? Of course not, although equally of course there are jobs that are tiring, dull and repetitive, just as the most enjoyable jobs have t,d&r moments.

It seems a useful time to ask these questions, as the Tory cuts (sorry, Conservative savings) are a) making jobs vanishingly rare, and b) with their separation of ‘front-line’ and ‘back-office’ jobs, they making a suggestion that only some kinds of jobs are really and truly work. (Jamie Fahey has blogged about it here.)

‘Back-office’ jobs is a euphemism, of course. It is a way of denigrating certain jobs, in this case for political gain. These ‘back-office’ jobs are, for the most part, exactly what Ford would call ‘work’: they are tiring, dull and repetitive. And yet they are truly work: they keep us moving, keep the economy turning (how Conservative is that?). Without an accounting office, would Tory Central Office continue to function? Of course not, just as it wouldn’t without cleaners, people who ensure their computers function, who order stationery, who keep their cars running… Well, you get the idea.

Jobs are, as Ford says, for most people, who you are, they indicate ‘something about your character as a provider and what you valued, about your hold on a secure future, about your grasp on moral responsibility and self-awareness.’ If you didn’t have work, then the ‘world would find another index — which it sometimes did at your peril. ‘He doesn’t have a job’ meant something specific, and it didn’t mean you were rich.’

The Conservatives sound just like the Victorians, with their ideas of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor: some jobs have value, some are to be sneered and whitewashed into non-existence. But work is work, jobs are jobs: they give us, and the world around us, meaning and dignity.

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