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Andrzej Lukowski: Don’t be silly – if theatre critics’ reviews are clickbait, Kenneth Tynan was a troll

Kenneth Tynan Kenneth Tynan: the first theatre troll?
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Long before the term ‘fake news’, there was ‘clickbait’ – the persistent suggestion that contemporary web journalism is being degraded by a chase for ‘clicks’, which – it is insinuated – result in Big Money when obtained in sufficient number.

“Beware the rise of the clickbait critic” fretted the headline of theatre producer Richard Jordan’s column for The Stage. (Arguably the title could itself be accused of being clickbait, but that leads us a bit too deep into the Matrix, so let’s just park that).

Anyway, he singles out two critics’ reviews of Salome at the National Theatre, those by Matt Trueman and Quentin Letts, and suggests that both writers have been dishonourably hyperbolic. Trueman demanded that somebody “bring me the head of Yael Farber” (the play’s writer-director) while Letts somewhat implausibly described it as “the worst show yet staged at the Royal National Theatre”.

Jordan then goes on to make a string of mountingly silly assertions, starting with the old, “It is hard to blame the critic who faces the dual threats of columns being cut, readers becoming less loyal, and editors demanding click-bait content”, continuing with the classic: “For those working in the arts industry, a well considered review is instructive and elucidating” and then a final slam dunk with: “Many changes in critical journalism could be blamed on the rise of the blogger.”

Tynan would probably be deemed a troll today. Alas, he was born before his time and the only thing of his that went viral was his unwashed S&M apparatus

Now, accepting that I just called him silly – clickbait! – I genuinely don’t have any desire to patronise Mr Jordan. But I do think that people in the industry who feel forever misunderstood by journalists sometimes don’t consider that they may not be entirely clear on how journalism works. So here’s an attempt to clarify a couple of things from my own, limited observations.

One: clickbait does exist, and it is possible to have a digital model based upon spaffing out a constant stream of low-grade articles that attract a high average number of unique users and good click-through to advertisers. But that is clearly not what either Trueman or Letts was aiming for. And let’s be frank, neither review ‘went viral’.

Two: critics do write eye-catching, over-the-top things. This is because they are trying to be entertaining. Critics are, above anything else, entertainers. The idea that we’re worthy dullards who have been prodded into writing interesting things by cash-hungry sub-editors is absurd. Lest anybody forget, there once was a man called Kenneth Tynan who would probably be deemed a troll if he was alive today. Alas, he was born before his time and the only thing of his that went viral was his unwashed S&M apparatus.

Three: of course reviews are of interest to people in the arts industry, but they’re not written for people in the arts industry. They’re written for the publication’s readership. People in the arts industry have feedback forms. People in the arts industry love feedback forms.

Four: the idea that bloggers are ravening clickbait fiends wielding a terrifying amount of power is absurd. Jordan singles out the West End Whingers’ immortal description of Love Never Dies as “Paint Never Dries” as evidence of this, suggesting it was the nail in the coffin for the show. But I’d ask if he could find a second example of a damning blog review to have such an impact. Also, how unmitigatedly shit must Love Never Dies have been if all it took to floor it was a decent quip?

I don’t really like this idea of there being a great divide between bloggers and hacks, but if anything the blogging community seems to harbour a far greater number of academic types writing long, studious, industry-aimed feedback pieces than journalism ever has.

In conclusion, then: clickbait in theatre criticism doesn’t really exist, and Matt Trueman’s review of Salome was the single greatest and most important piece of writing in the history of the universe *collects massive bag of swag from The Stage’s viral hits department and runs off*.

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