Lessons from the Book Review

Mr. Anton Ego Himself! ("Ratatouille"/Pixar)

Last week I wrote about what I called the “review monoculture headlined by the New York Times.” (The full post is here.) That piece ended on a largely open note. But as I leafed through yesterday’s paper, something of a solution emerged: the Book Review — a Sunday favorite — models a pluralistic alternative to the theater desk’s gladiatorial, yes/no mindset.

In the Book Review, writers are reviewed by fellow practitioners. Novelists review other novelists, zoologists review other zoologists, law scholars review other law scholars, etc. This makes for informative, engaging reviews from people who profoundly understand what their subjects are writing about. They’ve been in the trenches and know what it takes to make it out successfully. Add to this the sheer size of the Book Review’s enormous pool of writers — one that mostly works on a freelance basis — and you’ve got a truly wise collective voice, one more informed, more representative, and more empathetic than any single, professional critic.

Lest one mourn the absence of total disinterest, these Sunday writers are complemented by a small team of full-time book reviewers who are published on the regular Arts page. Their counterpoint comes from standing up for the casual, non-specialist reader. Interestingly, it’s not infrequent for a book to get covered by both sets of critics, often to differing effect. This multiplicity brilliantly exposes criticism for the personal, subjective art it is, and creates a stimulating dialogue within the paper itself.

Why not try this with theater reviews? Theater-makers and full-time critics could cover plays. This isn’t a new idea, apparently. In his book “Letters to a Young Actor,” Robert Brustein recalls, “For a while the Times had a section called ‘Backtalk,’ a forum through which theater people could respond to what they considered unfair criticism. But that idea, like the notion of employing a daily and a Sunday critic on the same paper who might even disagree with each other, was soon to be discarded… The Times was never willing to demythologize its drama critic, nor to loosen it stranglehold on the New York theatre.”

The Times made a small step towards multiple voices last year, when Twyla Tharp’s Broadway dance musical “Come Fly Away” was reviewed by both the theater and dance desks. (The former raved, the latter panned.) What’s more, the two reviewers got to battle it out on the ArtsBeat blog. What wonderfully smart, compelling stuff!

This shouldn’t be so rare. Here’s wishing that, per the Book Review, Messers (always Messers!) Brantley, Isherwood, etc., might open up their Azkaban of a critical island. Writers who make theater, or just other writers, would undoubtedly open up an exciting, new critical sphere.

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