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The Critics Say ...
57 Theater Reviewers in New York and Beyond Discuss Their Craft and Its Future
By Matt Windman
Book Review by David Levy
If that title made you think, "But wait a second, I'm not sure that 'critics' and 'reviewers' are the same thing," this book might be for you. Whether or not there's a distinction between those titles is one of a few dozen questions Windman posed to his colleagues in his effort to assess the state of criticism today. With topics ranging from each writer's philosophy of criticism to how the Internet has changed theater, journalism, and criticism, The Critics Say... covers just about every relevant topic you might want to hear a theater critic discuss.
If this already sounds like too much "inside baseball," this probably isn't the book for you. But if you got to this review from the link on TalkinBroadway.com's All That Chat, you're probably invested enough in both theater and the discussion thereof to dig inand you are likely to be surprised to see how often All That Chat comes up in discussion, and not just in comments from our own Matthew Murray.
Unfortunately, "discussion" might be a strong word to describe what happens in the book, which is presented in a style more akin to survey results, with a question posed by Windman followed by a long list of responses formatted as "name-of-critic: answer." (In later chapters, the questions provoked longer responses from fewer critics, which makes for a somewhat more satisfying reading experience.) While Windman admirably arranges the answers in an order that occasionally juxtaposes answers that seem to speak to each other, there is no genuine back-and-forth either among the interview subjects or between them and Windman. If Windman could not have engineered an opportunity for at least some of his subjects to respond to (or converse with) each other, the book would at least have benefitted from a bit of authorial voice beyond the very short questions that frame each section.
As to the critics themselves? If you've only ever encountered them through their criticism, you may find this peek behind the curtain fascinating. Learning a bit more about each writer's outlook may unlock some of their critical opinions for you, or at least contextualize them. Given the national scope of the critics included, you are also likely to be introduced to some new-to-you voices you may want to seek out going forward. You might also be surprised at some of the names included among 57 critics, such as Perez Hilton and Michael Riedel. Thankfully, not all "critics" included are allotted equal space, and for the most part, the word count devoted to each interview subject is in proportion to his or her relevance to the book as a whole.
On the other hand, if you avidly follow theater criticism, read the feature articles and books authored by critics, connect with these writers on Twitter, and so on, you are likely to discover these men and women to be exactly who you already knew them to be, and you may wish to adjust how many of each's responses you read accordingly.
Students of both theater and journalism should find the book useful, if a bit depressing (particularly in the section in which the critics offer advice to those who might follow in their footsteps). While I can't say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Critics Say..., I'm grateful the book exists as a snapshot of this transitional moment in theatrical criticism.