The Critics’ Circle is 100 years old this year, and tomorrow the drama section, of which I am chairman, is joining forces with Central School of Speech and Drama to stage a one-day centenary conference there to discuss Key Changes in 100 Years of Criticism (it isn’t too late to register to attend).
Sadly it sometimes seem that we have more to fear these days than to celebrate. The Independent on Sunday recently unceremoniously culled its full fleet of critics, and now recycles, entirely for free, extracts from the reviews of other publications instead by way of its only critical coverage. Of course, the trouble with aggregated content is that it relies on there being other sources still generating original material to draw off.
The List’s Charlotte Runcie recently noticed that when the paper
tweeted a link to an article called ‘How much would you pay for this James Bond submarine car?’, their now ex-pop critic Simon Price replied, ‘Nothing. I’d get rid of it, and drive a digest of other people’s cars instead’.
But then the writing has been on the wall for a while now, not least people’s Facebook walls. Users, we are told, rely above on recommendations from friends nowadays anyway, and as the channels of communication have proliferated in which anyone who has an opinion to express on absolutely anything can do so freely and instantly, what value is placed on so-called expert opinion?
Certainly it’s difficult to quantify in a financial way that may return a monetary reward to those of us who still rely on it to make some kind of a living. As publishers like The Independent find it increasingly difficult to turn a profit (if they ever did, and rely on the kindness, ego and/or pursuit of power of Russian oligarchs instead), it’s no wonder that critics are seen as entirely dispensable in the great scheme of things.
Besides, so many arts writers – just like many actors – are being forced to give it away for free nowadays that the value of what we do is being diminished by our own eagerness to be seen and heard above all. That’s more important, it seems, than being able to feed ourselves. The Huffington Post model of journalism – where you get visibility for your views, for sure, which is considered reward enough, but no money – is becoming pervasive.
The Arts Desk, one of the best sources for independent arts criticism in the UK that was set up by journalists for journalists, isn’t yet able to pay its own contributors, but at least it is not making money for anyone else as it does so – unlike the Huffington Post, which earned its original founder Arianna Huffington a cool $315m when it was sold to AOL in 2011, even though it was built largely (and continues to trade) on free labour.
Being paid to write, of course, doesn’t in itself make you a good journalist anymore than being paid to act makes you a good actor, but it is at least a recognition of the value of what you do. But just as the noise of so many voices out babbling, tweeting, texting and worse out there has expanded, so authoritative ones that can be heard above the crowd-sourced variety are arguably going to be more important, not less.
Twitter has created an outlet for anyone and everyone’s opinions – but whether you are being heard is directly related to what you’ve got to say. People follow you if you do – and unfollow you if you don’t.
Of course, I’m not paid to tweet, either, but I’ve gathered a valuable community around me who I interact with regularly, from committed theatregoers to theatremakers themselves. (I also, inevitably but relatively rarely, get subject to abuse there, too, which is the price you pay for visibility). Meanwhile, I am frequently told that things I say on Twitter get translated into direct action, with people booking tickets for shows as a result of what I’ve said.
It also certainly sharpens your critical game to have to do so in just 140 characters for each entry. And it forces me, too, to commit to my point of view, before I’ve seen what anyone else has said. The critical landscape and the language and tools we use to convey our message has changed faster in the last ten years than in the preceding 90 of the life of the Critics’ Circle. My aim is to stay current by staying on top of, if not ahead, of the game and the runaway critical train.