by J. Kates
The husband of a costume designer once threatened to punch me out because I didn’t acknowledge his wife’s work properly. A retired geologist who acted badly but enthusiastically in his local productions proudly posted my equivocal mention of his name — “the best work he’s done all year” — on the refrigerator door, happy just to be noticed.
I’ve been writing music, film, book, and theater reviews for half a century, from community theater to international publications, and the principles are the same. “If you can’t be kind, be clever” works until the cleverness becomes too unkind. You look for the good, but lose all credibility if you turn a blind eye to the ungood. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that people think the critic is one who hates music. No, Shaw answered, the critic loves music so passionately he can’t be satisfied with less than the best.
Some reviewing demands immediate attention and a tight deadline, which can lead to silly mistakes. For one Shakespeare production, the editor failed to catch that I had called Romeo a Capulet, which kind of undermines the whole play. Oh well, what’s in a name?
And sometimes deep and long consideration can lead to trouble. Once, after having written a review of a wonderful poetry book for The Village Voice, I walked into a New York bookstore to buy a copy as a gift. The bookseller exploded at me: “I sent that book back to the publisher months ago, now some asshole just reviewed it in The Voice, and three people have come in this week asking for it.”
The asshole left quietly.