Critics Divided on Critic-O-Meter

| 12/16/2008 2:01:45 PM

thumbs upTheater critics Isaac Butler and Rob Weinert-Kendt unveiled their Critic-O-Meter blog last ­­­week, giving New York theater enthusiasts a one-stop site for play reviews and, in the words of the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Leigh Morris, laying bare a “philosophical divide between criticism that investigates and that which judges.”

Critic-O-Meter gathers any and all reviews it finds on a given play, translates each review into a letter grade, and averages the grades into an overall score. Butler and Weinert-Kendt then write a short blurb summing up the critical reaction. Further links offer visitors the option of browsing excerpts from the original reviews.

Morris’ piece explores feedback to Critic-O-Meter thus far, particularly in the critical community. Their responses have been divided: While some less-established reviewers express gratitude for the exposure (one gushes at the possibilities for “a lil' ol’ aspiring theater critic”), other writers view the blog disdainfully. A particularly apocalyptic critic sniffs that it is “evidence that the final stage in the devolution of the theater review has arrived.”

Morris has some beef with Critic-O-Meter—he rejects, for instance, a logic that assumes subjective reviews can be easily converted into objective grades. But even as he indulges in some editorializing on the blog’s value, he acknowledges that such compilations are already entrenched in our critical culture. After all, movie and music reviews have long drawn on thumbs, stars, and letter grades to assess a piece’s worth.

Morris ends, somewhat breezily, there: We like our criticism to tell us what’s good, and fast. Those who voice dissent, no matter how nobly, are “spitting into the wind.” While there’s doubtlessly a degree of truth to his conclusions, he leaves some strands of analysis underdeveloped. For instance, he might have examined the differences between the critics who support tools like Critic-O-Meter and those who greet it with handwringing. The detractors seem intent on maintaining a certain purity in theater criticism. It’s hard to tell whether this stems from an elitism about the theater world or more practical concerns about the future of their jobs. As reviewers in the fine arts increasingly take their cues from critics of more popular forms, these kinds of issues ought to be explored.

Image courtesy of Joel Telling, licensed under Creative Commons.

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