Theatre reviewing and blogs

Bloggers are being presented by comment on “blog culture” by people who often know less about it than they do.

This week, there has been a short online discussion about blogging on the (virtual pages) of The Guardian. Michael Billington asserted the need for professional, paper based reviewers, but I think some of his comments betray a patronising tone. He is simply wrong when he claims that

The critic, unlike the blogger, also has a duty to set any play or performance in its historical context.

… since blogs have the same responsibility if they want to be considered relevant (or simply, ‘good’). Billington is taken to task for this misunderstanding in the comments, and also for a misplaced nostalgia when he says:

The blog seems to me have supplanted the kind of prolonged argument about the arts that once took place in the correspondence columns of newspapers. Example: years ago, when I rashly suggested that Shaw was the best dramatist after Shakespeare, a considered, if heated, debate went on for weeks in the paper itself. Now such a suggestion would be a 48-hour wonder on the blog.

But that’s the point, says Ian Shuttleworth in the comments:

Blogs in this respect are filling a gap that has for some time and increasingly been left by editorial neglect in print publications.

Meanwhile, Lyn Gardner is a good deal more positive about the medium of blogging. It was her contribution which drew me to the debate, because last year I remember she used The Guardian’s theatre blog to publish a dissenting review of Katie Mitchell’s Waves, which had been panned by… none other than Michael Billington. Sadly, an online argument about Mitchell’s (admittedly divisve) work never materialised. This was a shame, since this sort of debate, between critics who care, is a feature which Billington himself misses. Blogs can complement theatre criticism, not challenge and marginalise it in the way that TV and film reviews have done.

Other writers also lament the absence of such robust industry. I am reminded of Michael Coveney’s essay in Prospect (November 2005). Here is a telling paragraph:

But the truth is that newspapers increasingly devote largely uncritical coverage to the latest product of the publicity machine … Previews and interviews now take precedence over critical responsibility. But the idea that they do so in order to meet a public demand is, I believe, false. Anyone under the age of 30 who wants to read about pop music, new film and reality television knows where to go. That place is not the broadsheets, but magazines and the internet. So the liberal, professional intelligentsia who read the broadsheets are confronted with coverage they don’t want and comment on “high culture” by people who often know less about it than they do.

The Guardian’s consideration of blogging is welcome, but ultimately, I cannot help but think that these critics are arriving late onto the scene, when they should have been in the vanguard. When Natasha Tripney writes

Bloggers are not constricted by word count or deadlines, and have free reign to write about what they want, when they want

or when Michael Billington types

critics are much more accountable for their opinions… the blog also gives a voice to the hitherto voiceless

we are reading insightless cliché – Many of us have been identifying these features for yonks! To paraphrase Michael Coveney, bloggers are being presented by comment on “blog culture” by people who often know less about it than they do.

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