Criticism in the digital age

Having been asked to take part in a forum on criticism in the digital age for the Melbourne Festival – it was held at the Wheeler Centre for books, writing and ideas – I wrote an opinion piece for The Australian on the subject. It happens to be exactly a year since I retired after 25 years at the paper. A lot has changed.

WHAT did you think? Did you like it? If you are at all interested in the arts you will have asked those questions and had them asked of you. Assessments are made and views expressed. Acts of criticism are entered into, whether formal or informal, closely argued or briefly encapsulated, backed by deep knowledge or impelled by an emotional reaction (or a combination of the two). The spectrum of response has always been broad but in the past only a small group of people had a wide public platform for their thoughts. Now everyone has a keyboard in their pocket and, it would appear, something to say.

Tonight I take part in a forum for the Melbourne Festival at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre called Criticism Now: Criticism in the Digital Age. It comes off the back of an outpouring of anguish – online of course – about the future of professional criticism in the age of the amateur whose enthusiasm knows no bounds.

With print under pressure there’s concern that the established media outlets will no longer be able to afford to pay critics, or in other words sustain the old model. I suspect there’s also an underlying anxiety is that when push comes to shove, those outlets may not rate reviewing highly enough to fund. That’s a reasonable enough fear. In the past few years professional reviewers have seen their patch increasingly overrun by citizen critics. The quality of criticism and its very nature are up for grabs.

Until recently there were no such clouds in the sky. I became a journalist because that was how my father made his living. My first memories of the business are of linotype operators at Dad’s paper, the Ballarat Courier, working at their huge, clanking machines to produce metal slugs bearing the words that would appear in the next day’s edition. Reporters pecked out their stories on typewriters, copy paper shot around the building via chutes and proof readers exercised stern quality control.

By the time I retired from The Australian, a year ago this month, I had seen the business up close for more than half a century. After the demise hot metal typesetting, other traditional jobs became vulnerable. Computerisation made linotype operators, proof readers and compositors redundant and journalists absorbed the old trades into their new multi-skilled lives.

And then … well, you know what happened next.

The jocular phrase “everyone’s a critic” has never been more potent. Word of mouth, always incredibly important to the arts, has migrated from small social circles to the broad reaches of Twitter and the comments section of online ticketing sites. Ideas that may have been discussed between friends have morphed into countless theatre, opera and dance blogs.

Digital publications with few resources but wide readership run crits from tyros who don’t expect to be paid. Old-media critics, often with many decades of experience, start blogs when they retire (guilty as charged!) and also don’t expect to make any money out of it, although they may also continue to write for their former employer (guilty again) and will submit an invoice. Younger critics bob up everywhere, promiscuous, if you like, in dispensing their favours in this free-for-all world.

The old ways are restricted but reassuring. Reviews are written by someone with the clout of the masthead behind them. Expertise is a given and there is always an editor handling the copy, acting as a sounding board and catching solecisms. There was, and is, a process that implies experience, knowledge, sound judgment and quality control. There will be cynics who say such things are rapidly diminishing in lockstep with newspaper staff cuts, but all I’ll say is that The Australian still has in-house sub-editors dedicated to working on the arts pages.

The mainstream media continues to have importance in the cultural discussion but has lost its singularity. As traditional media moves more extensively into the digital area and new digital-only mastheads establish themselves, the number of regular, known, serious voices in this realm increases rather than decreases. Whether these people are paid or not they constitute a group whose work is filtered and curated. That fact alone doesn’t necessarily guarantee the highest quality, but it gives guidance. In addition, there are unaligned bloggers of exceptional interest.

The avid consumer of arts writing has never had it better and it’s not just a matter of volume. Access and interactivity has empowered readers, albeit at a cost. The reader needs to be more alert, engaged and discriminating than ever, particularly as digital publishing alters the way people write, think and act. I’m fascinated by the ways in which experienced critics and those aspiring to be recognised critics have reacted to the freedoms and pressures of the digital space.

The most obvious freedom is that of space. It’s actually not a bad discipline to have to tailor a piece carefully to an unyielding requirement, but also a great joy not to have to rein in a thought or make blunt some nuanced argument for the want of a few more words. The astute online critic will write only so much and no more. Mostly, though, the critics I admire greatly are writing at great length, which leads me to a second freedom: release from the yoke of generalist language.

In newspapers there’s an expectation that anyone can light upon a piece and understand it; that it shouldn’t be so technical or academic as to exclude that shadowy character, the intelligent but general reader. Specialist online sites exult in detail and depth, the more the better. There’s freedom of style and tone, too, with no need to keep in touch with a newspaper’s house style.

Even if attached to a masthead, critics may be found directly via search engine so distinctive voices do best. The quiet, protective silo of the newsroom is gone. It’s a jungle of individuals out there and the meek are at a great disadvantage. We see writers becoming their own publicists, tweeting that a review has been posted (guilty again!). It’s best if there is a zinging phrase that can fit into 140 characters. There’s also much personal material sitting alongside the business tweets and sometimes the two can’t be separated. A corollary is that some critical writing may be passionate and partisan to the point where it can be difficult to separate criticism from advocacy. This is seductive, intimate territory.

These are, of course, generalisations because there are as many approaches as people writing. But whatever the approach, readers will decide from the multiplicity of sources which they value and prefer rather than passively accepting what’s put in front of them.

Print media is working hard to find a viable bridge between the old ways and the new. Online publications, if not supported by a trust or a philanthropist, also need to develop a workable business model. Not everything will survive the transition – remember the compositors – and I make no predictions. I do, however, have the deepest faith in the arts as a subject of study from a glorious multitude of perspectives.

A version of this article appeared in The Australian on October 24.

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