Sunday, December 16, 2012

A few thoughts on three sentences

Many observers (often self-interested observers) have bemoaned the "decline" in theatre criticism seen over recent years - and have simultaneously decried the resulting rise in theatre blogs and web criticism. Indeed, in Boston the Herald has all but ended its theatre coverage, and the Phoenix - which is supposedly more committed to the arts than the rest of the local press - recently reduced (again) the word count of its reviews.

With those thoughts in mind, and a few spare moments this morning, I decided to post a comparison of five local reviewers above, along an axis of word count for a randomly-selected, but generally considered "important," production, Ch'inglish at the Lyric Stage.  Now this is just one set of reviews for one production, I know - but my gut is the comparison you see above would probably hold true for most Boston shows and their critical response.

Of course word count is no proxy for quality - but arguably it's a rough proxy for depth, or at least comprehensiveness.  It's hard to imagine a 375-word review deeply considering a production's performances or direction, much less its design.  And indeed, the 375-word review noted above discusses the play and its plot for 287 words, so only 88 words (actually, three sentences) are focused on the production itself.  The 635-word review keeps to something like the same ratio - the production rates 212 words of comment - a comparatively lavish 8 sentences.

What's probably most noteworthy about the chart above, however, is that the web writers clock in at greater length than the print writers do.  Indeed, the two web scribes with experience under the old print dispensation, myself and the editor of the Arts Fuse, perhaps almost instinctively delivered the most criticism.  Again, of course, quantity is no substitute for quality; although I don't think either author's standards have fallen (at least not for their own work).  Indeed, my standards have certainly risen since I left the Globe; and just as certainly, much of the commentary I have been able to publish here would never have made it onto that daily's tightly circumscribed pages.

So there you have a few notes toward a different perspective on the "decline" of criticism.  Has it really declined in general?  Perhaps all you can definitely say is that print criticism has declined. Sometimes to just three sentences.

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