Fringe, film fest and publishing season is upon us – a time when the smell of suntan lotion lingers as we push into theatres. But it’s the critics, not just the performers, who are making headlines.
With 76 events in the Vancouver Fringe, more than 100 in the Toronto International Film Festival, and – further abroad – a boggling 2,695 in the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s near impossible to make program choices without the ubiquitous star-ratings system or praise from critics. Unsurprising, then, that the gatekeepers should be in the spotlight.
Recent articles are full of questions about the role and merits of the critic. The Paris Review wants to know how free one should be with words; Salon wonders whether negative reviews even matter in today’s culture; The Guardian is concerned by commentators’ conflicts of interest.
But while we pontificate about the critics, reality is fast changing their roles.
Meanwhile, the development of digital culture and online technologies has turned true the adage “everyone’s a critic.” A theatre performance, a restaurant, even a taxi ride home, can all now be condemned to oblivion by the voice of the masses – anonymous reviews by potentially uninformed or biased individuals who possess neither the knowledge nor the experience to warrant our attention. Daniel Mendelhson’s unparalleled essay in The New Yorker says it well: “Even when you disagreed with [the critic], their judgments had authority, because they were grounded in something more concrete, more available to other people, than ‘feelings’ or ‘impressions.'”
Even reputable publications are getting in on the act of crowd-sourcing comment, as the New Statesman uncovered when it spoke with Edinburgh Fringe reviewers from the festival’s most popular dailies. Or, as it turns out, students wanting free tickets and a chance to improve their writing skills.
The debate about the critic’s role is an important one, and will no doubt endure. But the conclusion to the argument may prove irrelevant. As media space for reviews decreases, and in-depth analysis gives way to online bluster, the critic’s role could quickly become moot for all but the few diehards writing those picks and pans and those they write about. A disappointment, according to this writer. Give everyone a key to the city, and you will soon appreciate the gatekeepers.