I understand why young critics are defensive, but here’s the truth

kate-bassett-critic Kate Bassett was the Independent on Sunday’s chief theatre critic for 13 years. Photo: 2013, licensed under Creative Commons
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My column on young producers made a very brief passing reference to the fate of young critics.

To wit: “There are plenty of budding actors, writers, directors and even critics (though no jobs for the latter), but budding producers are the ones that are most urgently needed of all.”

This ignited a howl of outrage from one young(er) critic (and a fellow contributor to The Stage), Matt Trueman, who publicly admonished me on Twitter:

I understand the defensiveness: the world is forever moving on, and the young have to live in a world that we’ve created. It’s all good and well for the Michael Billingtons of this world, they might say, who’ve had over 40 years of well paid professional employment out of being a critic. Now there’s only scraps left, and they’re having to scrape by.

[pullquote]It’s not just old-timers hanging on[/pullquote]

But it’s also a situation created not just out of old-timers hanging on, which has been ever thus. Nowadays, however, there are limitless opportunities for people to review from blogs to free, public websites.

The emergence of more outlets has been at the cost, in every sense, of actually being paid to write for them. I now know of at least one national newspaper that runs reviews without paying its critic to actually write them, though that person does so because she enjoys it.

The experience (and the free tickets) have a value, of course, but they don’t put food on the table, though you may if you’re lucky get an interval drink and quite possibly even a sandwich.

Instead, the work has to be its own reward. And I’m not denying that it’s incredibly rewarding to be able to go to the theatre night after night and offer our opinions publicly about what we see.

[pullquote]We are witness first-hand to a rush to the exit[/pullquote]

But as I see a friend and former colleague like Kate Bassett (the Times, the Telegraph, the Independent on Sunday) hang up her critical hat* after over 20 years and take up an appointment in academia instead is to witness first-hand a rush to the exit.

I don’t want to give up (just yet), but I think I’m right to point out the more or less total absence of actual jobs in the sector. Meanwhile, those left trying to make a living in it have to fight an ever-shrinking market of paid employment, while there’s simultaneously an ever-widening market for free stuff.

Of course, I hope there will always be a market for quality journalism – but when Libby Purves, a broadcaster of many years experience and a former chief theatre critic for the Times, has to market her opinions on a personal blog she doesn’t get paid to write, I fear for it.

*Correction: As Kate Bassett (@katebassett001) has noted in a comment below, the information that she is hanging up her critical hat is not accurate. She will continue to review, but just for different outlets.

Read more columns from Mark Shenton