The dark art of the slag ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The dark art of the slag

In today's Age, critic Cameron Woodhead buys into the recent controversy around Shit on Your Play. For once, a sensible, informed piece about theatre blogging in the mainstream press. As he points out:

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Simmons' writing is that her relentless formula, which runs something like - ''I couldn't give a toss about this show. It's the director's fault. Pretentious wanker'' - risks hijacking genuine aesthetic debate and confirming audience prejudice against all but tried and true theatre. It militates against the most difficult aspect of criticism, the role critics play in equipping audiences to appreciate challenging art and in expanding their taste for novel pleasures.

Indeed. Read the whole article here.


Peter Prattle said...

Sensible, apart from the fact that Woodhead gets caught in trap of referring to her as 'middle-aged' (cue again mumsy outrage snort), is incorrect about the school (it is co-educational) and generalises that the blog has been only 'panning' directors and theatre companies when it has a fair share of positive reviews (particularly for the Griffin).

Yes, sensible and informed.

Alison Croggon said...

I don't know, since I didn't write it, but I suspect that Cameron wasn't so much pulling on the "mumsy" meme as alluding to the fact that most bloggers are much younger. (Aside from me, of course. I am well middle aged. And also a mother-of-three.)

True that SOYP has positive reviews as well as negative ones. But that's what I mean about the Global Mail article - quite aside from the blog's title and mission statement - doing Jane Simmons no favours. Anyway, perhaps she understands now that the one thing theatre culture here is not missing is "debate".

Cameron woodhead said...

In calling Simmons 'middle-aged', I was simply alerting readers to her age range. If that is taken as a sign of mumsiness (unintended by me) she can hardly complain when she makes remarks like:

"Director Simon Stone ... tackles Brecht's early didactic play THE ONLY WAY A YOUNG MAN KNOWS HOW: blood, sex and naked bodies." (emphasis mine)

(Worth pointing out, too, that Baal isn't a didactic play, it's an expressionist one.)

Simmons' blog does have constructive reviews, but her most popular posts are intemperate slags, and Crittenden quoted them at length in his article.

FWIW, Simmons does have the potential to be more than a troll. Perhaps now that she is putting her name to her reviews, she'll fulfill that potential.

As for the school, my fault. I'll fix it on the blog. It's one of the beauties of the medium - real-time subbing.

Joss said...

Because the formula of some other critics is "I love this show because I'm trying to get into the directors pants, I mean, next show. He's so talented and inspirational". The arse-licking incestuous love-fest that comes from others, or alternatively the uber-academic cerebral analysis doesnt draw punters or build new audiences. But I bet SOYP has/does/will.

Tom said...

Joss, that's just being silly... Simmonds won't have any credibility or sway until she becomes a critic for Fairfax. Which isn't such an unimaginable prospect now that she has been given more publicity than the Global Mail article alone could have ever given her. Boo!

As for Mr Woodhead, I'm sure he'd be happy to add to his list of recommendations the ability to practise what one preaches.

Though, it is nice to know that if you ever come across a negative review in The Age, it simply means Mr Woodhead has been enjoying himself: "They're also great fun: bracing to write... and entertaining to read"

How sweet.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah, now the sledging starts. Perhaps commenters should read the comments policy, handily available from the menu bar. Disagreement and even passionate argument is welcome; abuse is not. Mainly because it is dull, and only serves to derail discussion.

Mostly Jane Simmons has been an excuse to discuss what criticism is or isn't or should be, and other related questions. It doesn't take much for that discussion to start in the theatre community. I'd also suggest her views, aside from the odd profanity, are indistinguishable from views I've seen widely available in the mainstream press for decades. Perhaps a job does beckon at the Telegraph, as a minion of Tim Blair's.

dashiell said...

What frustrates me most about jane Simmons is her perceived victimization. She is determined to martyr herself and paint herself as a hero for the people and a victim of elitist Sydney theatre goers and the blogging mafia/posse.

She even made a comment about you on Facebook Allison:

Poor @alisoncroggon (is that her name?) She & her cronies are obsessed with me. Should I be paying her a PR fee? Hugs to you all. xx

It seems that she wants to be obsessed about though!

However, somehow she keeps drawing ne back to her blog despite her arrogant tone. Reading many of the comments it seems there are many people who do feel that isolated as an audience member and to whom Jane Simmons is the messanger for all that they wants to say.

Do you think that her popularity proves that maybe some part of the Sydney population is feeling left out? One reader even advocated bringing back booing if you don't like a show.

Is she to be congratulated, to a degree, for at least having a passionate response to something? Does all bloggibg and criticism need to be cerebral? I feel like that is what many of her supporters are connecting with.

I'm sorry that this is not a direct response to Cameron's article. I have been sitting outside this blog broo ha-ha and this is a culmination of many days of mulling and reading theatre notes :)

dashiell said...

Firstly, sorry about the spelling mistakes ...

I would also clarify that o am not suggesting that critics and bloggers, like yourself alison, are NOT passionate in your responses. You just have a more composed and analytical response to the work you see, that is all.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Dashiell - Just caught me before I retired. Thanks for your post. (And I'll excuse your spelling mistakes if you excuse mine.) Yes, I don't know why the victimhood. The internet simply doesn't work by inclusions and exclusions: bloggers build their readers through their work - not, it must be noted, through mainstream coverage, though that can give an indie blogger a fillip - and nobody gives permission. There are no magic barriers, either, forbidding Simmons from coming here and saying her piece. Any blogger worth her salt would come and argue the toss, rather than taking potshots from behind the lines. Why the weird quaking?

Absolutely, Simmons speaks for a section of the audience, just as I do. I have never disputed that. I am slightly puzzled by the claim that there's no place for the attitude that serious art is a wank - it was the constant mainstream coverage to that effect which made me start TN in the first place. (Maybe this is the mainstream backlash.) I continue to wonder about her assertions of popularity, when she has had to date so few readers. Maybe she will establish herself as part of the discourse, maybe she will be a nine-day wonder. Time will tell, but for me personally, the only reasons to read her blog are similar to those that make me check out Andrew Bolt. There's no doubt it can be a winning formula.

There are always people who will feel alienated by work that demands things of its audience, as much of the work she attacks - and especially Benedict Andrews's work - does. I don't give this work a free pass, but it's given me some of my most exciting theatrical experiences. They're not for everyone, and I've never assumed they are. Maybe the only real argument I have with Simmons's blog is her claim for speak for "the audience", as if an audience is a homogenous blob of which I, or anybody else who enjoys demanding work, am not a member. Audiences differ: Simmons loved When The Rain Stops Falling, I whereas I nearly died of boredom. There is room for both responses.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Surely you have a problem with Simmons' frequent linguistic imprecisions and precarious command of syntax Alison? They bear directly on a critic's competence.

obsessed with jane said...

"Poor @alisoncroggon (is that her name?) She & her cronies are obsessed with me. Should I be paying her a PR fee? Hugs to you all. xx"

She posted that on Twitter.

In fact she made TWO POSTS STATING HOW OBSESSED YOU WERE WITH HER WITHIN AN HOUR. The other one has since been removed. Someone must've alerted her to the irony.

Alison Croggon said...

If I were obsessed with everyone I speak to on twitter, my life would be very strange indeed. Or stranger than it is. But, you know, this is getting too personal for my liking. I'm not above a bit of light malice (as you know, Cameron) but flame wars are no fun at all.

Yes, the writing means that I don't especially enjoy reading the blog and seems of a piece with much of the careless thinking. But that doesn't bother everyone. It's the internet: you get all sorts of levels of competence. As many people have said, it will be interesting to see if she lifts her game now she's accountable to her identity. What's more to the point is the careless journalism in The Global Mail, where people legitimately might have expected better.

Cameron Woodhead said...

The looseness of Simmons' expression isn't only a matter of style though. I think Jana's analysis is spot on. It infects her ability to communicate her knowledge.

In the Baal review, she seems to imagine that the play is flawed because Brecht hadn't perfected 'alienation', when it is an expressionist play. Brecht hadn't thought of Epic Theatre or the Vefremdungseffekt when he wrote it. It's hard to say whether she's ignorant of this or whether her writing is so muddled she can't inform us of the facts clearly.

I'm not sure you get away from the debate entirely scot-free, Alison. Both Crittenden and Simmons slag off nameless print critics as limp cogs in the publicity machine, pulling their punches all over the place, and use that falsehood to frame the (non)debate.

You condemn that tactic now, but they're only following a formula you yourself have championed in past pieces of blog boosterism. Look at the Drum article you wrote after the Wheeler Centre panel. You claimed print critics were part of a culturally toxic "hive mind" for God's sake! (Wee-oo-wee-oo. I must now plug my brain directly into the Fairfax mothership, where my reviews will be dictated by telepathic messages sent by Gina Rinehart. Wee-oo-wee-oo.)

Trying to manufacture a print critics vs bloggers war flies in the face of the evidence, as Crittenden must have known. Apart from anything else, most print critics (at least in Melbourne) have blogs too. Course they do. Journalists who can't work easily across both media willl go the way of the dinosaurs.

Alison Croggon said...

Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes...)

Still, I'm not sure that is a fair representation of what I said, Cameron. What I said was this:

"It may be true, as Williamson claims, that "for every brilliant new blogger that has emerged, 100 pallid yes-men (and women) have sprung up." What he doesn't concede is that this is even more true of print criticism, and that this print "hive mind", or manufactured consent, has been culturally toxic because its intellectual weight has been supported by the institutional power of newspapers and publishers. Australian publishers have seldom been champions of the lone critical voice: most often, it's those very critics who have been marginalised, and, in at least three cases that I know of, sacked, while the yes-men sail on.

"What the internet means for the old-fashioned print critic is the end of institutional authority. That so many of these critics mistake institutional authority for critical authority says everything you need to know."

I might add that your own tune has changed considerably. But hey.

Unknown said...

If I were paying $15000 a term to send my child to St Andrews I'd like to think the teachers knew the meaning of the word "imbibe."

Cameron Woodhead said...

I'm not sure my tune has changed so much as the melody and harmony have swapped places. I still think the internet is full of trolls! Focusing on them at the expense of informed online commentators isn't productive though.

And I have no problem with people having a go at print critics, as long as the criticism is specific and backed by evidence, rather than an unsubstantiated slur.

Jana said...

Certainly it's time to put to bed the print/blog dichotomy, isn't it? Except to point out, time and again, that bloggers aren't paid for updating their blogs.

However, and I ask everyone in the room: why don't we get worked up more often about unsubstantiated positive reviews, that make up (by bulk, although possibly not by readership) the majority of what goes under theatre reviewing in Australia? Certainly they are doing greater damage to our theatre than one SOYP. If nothing else, than because they make it hard for the average punter to navigate through the hundreds of shows on offer on any given day.

I know I just about stopped going to the theatre when my only source was Helen Thomson in The Age. I often left the theatre concerned that, if what I had seen was 'good' in Melbourne, than what could possibly be bad?

(OTT: your CAPTCHA is giving me words in Cyrillic!)

Cameron Woodhead said...

Oh come on Jana. I disagreed with some of Helen's reviews (and sane, intelligent people do disagree about art) but she was fearless about what she didn't like.

Fact is, we don't support our best critics here. Quite the opposite. We have predictable panels titled 'Critical Failure' and such. Critic-bashing is ubiquitous. You're doing it now.

If we want more brave, trenchant and learned criticism, we have to build a culture that values it. By all means weed out the reviewers who like everything as part of that process. You know as well as I do it is going to take a lot more.

Including critical culture as an essential adjunct to artistic culture within the National Cultural Policy might help, but I bet it doesn't happen. Failing that, we need to lobby the Literature Board to fund arts critics. Sleep beckons.

Alison Croggon said...

I guess the key thing is "unsubtantiated" criticism. That drives me crazy, in print or pixels.

If there is "critic bashing" (and I don't think Jana is doing that, any more than I thought you were, or at least, I hope not), it's only of concern if it reinforces the tendency in our culture that is hostile to the whole idea of questioning conventional wisdoms, in art or in critical thought. No one is above criticism. Besides, it's not becoming in a critic to be over-sensitive to being criticised. It's never pleasant, but if you dish it out, etc...

Also, fat chance of the Lit Board supporting young critics, given that the last thing it wants is to broaden its base of applicants. How a critical culture is to be sustained long-term is a real question.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Sure, unsubstantiated positive reviews are as bad as unsubstantiated negative ones. And they're much, much more common online than in print. I was planning on linking to the funniest and most incompetent examples at some point.

Helen saw theatre for decades and usually gave her reasons. Her reviews weren't 'unsubstantiated'. Jana might have regularly disagreed with them, but that's a different matter.

Finding a critic whose taste and judgement you trust is easier now there are more of us, and bully for that.

But as I said before, if you're going to attack a critic, make your criticism specific and provide evidence. How are we going to assess the strength of your criticism otherwise? We can't. That's why it's critic bashing.

We need to home in on what we actually mean by 'unsubstantiated' criticism, I suppose.

Simmons' argument that print critics are in thrall to the star system and cut their cloth to the financial interests of the newspapers they write for is a fantasy, in my experience. It doesn't work like that at all.

Anonymous said...

JS's most recent reviews - of Thyestes in particular - suggest a forthrightness on the wane. Different can of worms when you're "out", perhaps.

And I quote:

"I know you’ve all been anxiously waiting for this review and I can’t blame you. Did she love it? Did she hate it? How will she respond to 'Thyestes'? Will she rip it a new one or has she finally fallen under the spell of the German inspired aesthetic as interpreted by Stone and co?

The simple answer is…I still don’t know how I feel about 'Thyestes'."

Anonymous said...

Thankfully, Cameron did not stick to his new year resolution - the one where he vowed to comment less on Alison's blog- Please continue, both of you, because without your discourse (and its wonderful passion!) theatre in Melbourne is indeed left, overwhelming, though not exclusively- to trolls of a kind.

Jono Black said...

"However, and I ask everyone in the room: why don't we get worked up more often about unsubstantiated positive reviews, that make up (by bulk, although possibly not by readership) the majority of what goes under theatre reviewing in Australia?"

Thank you Jana. In Sydney this is a particular problem in the mainstream press and could go som way to explain the ugly rise of that sh*t blog.