Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Five Stars, Four Stars, Three Stars, Two Stars, One Star, Lift Off

Over on Facebook, there is a group dedicated to reconsidering the role of star ratings on reviews. It was born during the Fringe, and features one of the most well-mannered discussions that I have ever read on the internet: professional critics, performers and interested parties presenting their opinions in a courteous and rational way: insight and intelligence grace the posts, and while consensus is absent, mutual respect ad attention is prominent.

Aside from remarking that this might demonstrate the possibility that internet chat need not descend into flame wars - if any group are unlikely to agree on fundamentals, it is critics - I am heartened by the public debate on the role of the review. However, I am not putting my comments on there, because I think that star ratings are a distraction from the more important questions surrounding the profession.

Besides, I don't want to look like an idiot, and most of the posters are far more informed than I am.

The main problems surrounding star ratings is that they are not consistent (five stars from one magazine is not the same as from another) and their use as publicity tools by the companies. Neither of these problems are easy to solve, but for the former, the same problem would apply whatever changes were made: the words "good" and "bad" mean different things, depending on who says them, and the essential subjectivity of any rating system can never be resolved. As for the latter, the problem can only be solved by the companies themselves: the requests for critics to just stop using stars, or the Fringe to monitor their use only defer responsibility.

In any case, there have been anecdotal signs that star ratings don't influence audiences too much any more.

What does emerge from the discussion is an anxiety about the role of the critic, and what reviews "ought" to do. There's the old favourites - less opinion, more description - a few appeals for longer, more detailed reviews, a decrying of those magazines that only turn up at the Fringe and their inexperienced writers. I am sure someone will make the appeal for "a single paper of record" fairly soon.

Now that on-line reviewing has become acceptable, any attempt to determine one single definition of criticism is probably impossible: every critic has their own approach, and this diversity is to be welcomed. In the past, I have been disrespectful of younger critics, students up for the Fringe. I now accept that their voices are not only valid, they are likely to speak to readers who are likely to be bored by my mixture of pretension, crude humour and insistence on seriousness. I have often been irritated by reviews, only to realise they were speaking to a different audience, and that I was being an old fart.

The review - which I expand to include any critical writing - does not have any duty to the company. It  is not there to encourage or discourage audiences, or provide cheap dramaturgy. These things may be by-products of the process. The review isn't even necessarily there to continue the conversation begun by the art work, although I write as if it is. The purpose of a review, or preview, or feature, or editorial, is to be an entertaining and informative piece of writing.

The mixture of "entertainment" and "information" will vary depending on the projected readership.

Taking advantage of the difficulties involved in defining art, I am going to say that criticism is an art form: it's like poetry, only has a distinctive set of conventions. In the same way that it is pretty insulting to expect artists to conform their work according to the use it has to other artists, the idea that criticism has any other function than expressing itself is unacceptable. There is no question that criticism engages in a dialogue with the work that it explores, and the audience, and the broader community: that does not prevent it from being art.

I'll leave it there, hoping that readers will be interested enough to deconstruct or argue against my conclusions.

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