Regular readers of this column will know how often I’ve feared the critical future, and the changing landscape of reviewing outlets where my professional colleagues and I currently earn our living.
Of course there’s a present full of opportunities for budding critics as never before. Anyone can set up a blog and simply start writing; you don’t need to be asked or invited to the party by an arts editor or publisher anymore. Today my colleague Libby Purves, who has been chief critic of The Times for the last three years, will coincidentally be reviewing her last show in that post; tomorrow, she launches a new personal website for her critical theatre writing.
That, more than anything, is a sign of the times (if not The Times). She won’t, of course, be paid for it, but at least she still has other outlets that do pay her for her efforts. Instead, it gives her a platform to continue writing about the theatre, as she done so ably for the last few years, and those of us who have paid to read her behind the Times paywall, as I did, can now continue to read her for free. (I can also now cancel that online subscription).
Libby may be leading the way of critics who become bloggers rather than bloggers who hope to become critics. At the recent “100 Years of Criticism” centenary conference organised by the drama section of the Critics’ Circle, one session was specifically devoted to the future of criticism (it can be heard on Theatrevoice here).
During this session, an audience member asked what the Critics’ Circle was doing to encourage and promote younger critics, which panellist Michael Coveney swatted away by saying that “the Critics’ Circle is not an employment agency.”
It’s true: we can’t protect our own jobs, let alone provide jobs for aspiring critics. There have, in any case, always been more people wanting to be critics than there have ever been available jobs; it requires persistence and luck, as well as ability, to find a berth. I am regularly told by people on Twitter how much they envy me my job. And I do know how lucky I am to have been able to earn a living doing this full-time for the last eleven years.
The future, however, will be made by the young today; and I frequently wonder what hope there is for them now that most of them have been drawn to giving their work away for free. Of course that’s the way people get experience – but now that publishers are used to not paying, will they ever again?
And as Lyn Gardner wrote in a blog on The Guardian website, getting paid to write has
always been the problem for would-be critics, where over the last 30 years or so probably only around a dozen people at any time have been earning a living by writing about theatre. When I was starting out, you needed a day job to support your writing. It’s always been the same for those who make theatre too. Many make work; historically very few get to a stage where they are fully funded to make it.
And she went on to say,
But the fact that there is a chance that you might is often what keeps people going as they leave their 20s, establish relationships and look to raise families. If we have a generation of artists and critics who believe there is no chance of that, then perhaps we really will have a crisis, because it means that only those from affluent backgrounds will be able to afford to make theatre or write about it. The question is what can be done to ensure that the work continues to get made, and those voices continue to be heard. Any ideas?
That call is valiantly answered in a blog by Jake Orr, a multi-tasking blogger and critic, which suggests that perhaps arts organisations and even the Arts Council should come to our collective aid. As he suggests:
We can not ignore this crisis. We have to find a way to support, finance and develop theatre criticism. The first step is to acknowledge what we are facing, with the second beginning to think of ways in which we can rethink, reshape and dream of a better, more sustainable system to support our critics.
Of course no one owes us a living – but Jake is right: new models will have be found, or criticism will die except as a hobby.