A reader writes, apropos of a posting about reviews in which I suggested that “reviews should be read after the performance, not before, mine included”:
I don’t agree completely with your point about reading a critic only after the performance. If you’ve followed a critic for any substantial length of time, you know with some precision where your tastes and his intersect and where they diverge. You know his enthusiasms, his antipathies, his idiosyncrasies. In short, you can often tell from what he thinks of a work whether or not you’re going to like it. In this way, he can be quite useful to you as a consumer guide. And reliable guidance about what is worth seeing or reading is essential, for how is the ordinary guy (who doesn’t have the time or resources to make many mistakes) to know which new novelist to pick up or which new cabaret performer to seek out without the help of his favorite critics?…
But of course you should always return to a good critic after experiencing the work. He can illuminate it, enlarge the experience, or put his finger on why you found it unsatisfying. For me, comparing insights and thoughts with my favorite critics is half the fun.
My correspondent has a very good point. I sometimes forget that I don’t pay to see Broadway shows (or anything else, except movies). In a perfect world, everybody would experience art without first having it explained: no program notes, no wall labels, no interviews with the author, and–above all–no reviews. You’d go simply because you were interested, because you made a habit of going to see new things. Then, after the immediate experience, you’d seek out further information to help you put that experience in perspective (or, as my correspondent remarks, simply for fun). I think it’s hugely important to make a serious and sustained effort to come to new works of art this way. But in order to do so, especially when you’re talking about Broadway shows, you’ve got to have (A) a lot of spare time and (B) a lot of spare money. Otherwise, it’s essential to call your shots, if only to avoid bankruptcy, and good reviewers can help.
Can, I said. How often do they help? How often do consumers routinely use reviews in that way–as a “consumer guide”? For me, the problem is less one of money than time. It’s my job to attend all Broadway openings, so I don’t need a guide to theater, nor do I typically look to reviews to point me in the direction of a new symphony or jazz album or museum exhibit. Movies, yes, in certain circumstances: there are one or two critics whose word is enough to send me to a new film. (I saw Next Stop Wonderland solely because of Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times.) More often, though, it’s a profile of an artist that stimulates me to see or hear something I would otherwise have passed up. (That’s why I went to see Ghost World–because of a New Yorker profile of Daniel Clowes that appeared prior to the film’s release.) Sometimes I go because a description of the plot made me curious (as in the case of Chasing Amy), or because the buzz has become too loud to ignore (as in the case of Lost in Translation). Most often, I go to new things at the urging of friends whose taste I know and trust, Our Girl foremost among them.
So I suppose I was offering a counsel of perfection when I suggested that reviews should be saved for after the fact. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to at least approximate the ideally receptive state that comes from experiencing art objects stripped of the intervening scrim of words. Above all, try to trust yourself, to feel what you feel, not what you think you ought to feel. Granted, if you don’t like Bonnard or The Four Temperaments or Falstaff or The Great Gatsby (the book, not the opera) or Charlie Parker’s “Embraceable You,” you’re the problem, not the art–but that’s no reason to pretend you feel otherwise, merely to keep trying to see what others see.
I’ll close with another almanac encore, this one from Kingsley Amis: “All amateurs must be philistines part of the time. Must be: a greater sin is to be coerced into showing respect when little or none is felt.” Yes.