Bill Marx is right to be examining the rise of internet criticism, but more importantly he doesn't seem to be dismissing the signs that say, "objects in rearview mirror are closer than they appear."
"With all of its editorial shortcomings, the web is increasingly becoming the place where ideas can be conveyed with a fervor and skill no longer possible in conventional journalism."
The survival of the mainstream critic, and I don't use that term derisively, will depend on his or her adaptation to this changing landscape. Roger Ebert, a few years ago, launched his revamped website which provides everything an internet movie-buff could want. One key ingredient to the success of Roger Ebert.com was the addition of a blog by Jim Emerson, the site's editor. Mr. Emerson adds important regular postings of interesting film articles and observations. And, as a bonus, provides a different opinion of some of the more controversial issues.
But, as Mr. Marx is right to point out, none of this would matter as much without style. Though Roger Ebert brings a great deal of film scholarship to the table, his authority has never been the key to his readability. Rather, his ability to add wit, polish and, where necessary, erudition to what are essentially mini-essays bring even those who disagree with him back for more. Emerson has equal talents for internet writing.
I have enjoyed following Mr. Marx's charting of this course over the past several years, and I am powerless to explain why it is only now that he would have begun the WBUR Arts Blog. Although, I am happy to say that he appears to be on the leading edge with the Arts Podcasts.
Perhaps one reason the Mainstream Arts Journalists, (outside of film reviewers,) are slow, or resistant in making the jump to the internet is the demand the new medium puts on them. Regular updates and extensive coverage are expected. Internet consumers want broad coverage, AND in-depth coverage. The want to see reviews of every show in town, but they may only be interested in one particular show, and when they click on that review, they want it to be extensive and in-depth.
Current Mainstream Critics have perhaps grown too fat and lazy with their shrinking pages and columns. If you only have room to publish a few theatre reviews every few weeks, then incisiveness and style becomes deadened and unexcercised. Instead, snark takes the place of these talents and skills. Snark with wit and style can be sublime, snark pretending to be wit and style is ugly and destructive. Internet publising would be like hopping on an functioning treadmill for these folks.
Networks of reviewers is one way to combat this, much as newspapers are using stringers. Larry Stark's Theatermirror in Boston has functioned this way for quite a while. A reliable stable of independents critics weigh in with, sometimes, multiple reviews on the same production. These regular contributors are supplemented by other, less frequent reviewers. (Myself included.) Larry's site also includes Quick Takes, (shorter capsules of impressions on productions,) Essays and general comments from Larry, (including almost annual epistilatory tangles with Bill Marx himself,) and Mere Opinions, (an area in which people post manifestos, observations and sometimes rants about the Boston theatre scene and the world beyond.)
Is Theatermirror a perfect system of critical assesment? I don't think Larry or anybody else would have the audacity to say that. On the other hand, I think Larry might actually be too humble to admit that his was one of the first and most extensive uses of this form for truly extensive regional theatre coverage.
The dangereous side to network coverage is that the more expansive the network gets, the more wit and style you lose. Amazon reviews, a topic brought up more than once, are interesting case in point. Yes, Amazon's forum can contain scintillating and styled short reviews, but more often you have a case of champions and detractors, (some who have not even read the book,) shouting at each other. And, as always, such a forum contains the danger of publishers and producers posting reviews. Mr. Marx's criticism of web based community reviewing like Theatermirror always seem to be mainly rooted in this fear. Larry's site does appeal greatly to the theater community and so Marx's fear is naturally not unfounded, but I have yet to find evidence of reviews that are planted by "cheerleaders." Carl Rossi, a frequent contributor to Theatermirror, has never been frightened of a negative review, and his dissenting views have been rabidly protected by Larry, (however much he may disagree with them,) against a sometimes hostile readership.
While Mr. Marx is never afraid to express his disdain for the Theatermirror neither on Larry's site or at Stagesource town meetings, he seems strangely to eschew its mention in his columns or blog postings. This seems more good business than anything else. After all, one link to Larry's site and a BUR reader would see right there on the daily update page, all of the reviews and coverage that it offers.
Perhaps Mr. Marx would keep his readers safe from what he perceives to be the bland and generally unenlightened commentary by web critics. But in a Blog posting yesterday (May 1,) Bill complained about the generally gushing reviews of the Globe and the Herald on the Boston TheatreWorks production of Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball. However, on-line critic Will Stackman had mentioned this on his blog back on April 19th. This was, of course, after his negative review of Sweetest Swing had appeared on his review site On the Aisle, along with a quicktake on Larry's site.
On the other hand, Mr. Marx had picked Sweetest Thing in his Monthly theatre preview entitled April Stage Standouts! So now, (a month after doing so, and weeks after the show has opened,) Mr. Marx decides to post about its shortcomings and to skewer the now weeks-old, establishment reviews.
It really comes down to business though. Who will be the first to branch out into a theatre web center that provides the best and most extensive in theatre journalism, criticism, and general information. And is there profit to be made this way?
Let's look at the case of Andrew Sullivan, a free-lance journalist and former New Rebublic editor. His blog, The Daily Dish, has now been nestled into the Mothership of Time Warner at Time.com. The Mainstream Media Giant recognized the power draw of the blog center.
Another case is TalkingPointsMemo, the site of journalist Josh Micah Marshall, whih appears to be self sustaining from Ads and donations, including the expansion of an area called the TPM cafe.
In the theatre world, blogger George Hunka, a playwright, writes great stuff on his blog Superfluities. He reviews as a stringer for the New York Times. And he has been recognized by Bill Marx on podcasts and in Bill's Op-Eds.
Another theatre blogger case is Garret Eisler who runs the blog Playgoer. In the last few months I have seen that what Eisler and Hunka are doing is going a step beyond blogging. Unlike infrequent dart-throwers and musers like me, Garret and George are picking up the telephone. What I mean is that in the case of the Rachel Corrie Controversy, Garret was on the phone and e-mailing key people to get statements and clarifications and George recently conducted an interview regarding performance with Marilyn Nonken. In these instances, Garret and George, without losing any of their style and wit, have bridged a sort of gap in the theatre journalism wilderness.
The future will be interesting to see. Will Superfluities be nestled into the wing of a mothership like the NY Times? Will Playgoer become a self sustaining network a la Talkingpointsmemo? Will anybody read what I am writing right now?
That being said, power is not truth and truth is not power. Just as a faith should not measure its truth by how many people it converts and how fast; art, art criticism and art journalism, should always remain truth seeking and not approval and income seeking entities.
Mr. Marx puts is best by saying, in his comments section, that he has no idea how all of this will shake out.