Tag Archives: Ben Brantley

Patti LuPone, Part II: “Don’t Give Critics the Power”

A big difference between books and theater, as Broadway star Patti LuPone points out in her enlightening and instructive memoir (Crown; 324 pages; $25.99), is the fact that in publishing it takes an accumulation of negative reviews to damn a book; in theater, one review can kill a play overnight.

Here’s one reason: With books, the Internet has ushered in our current era of “the democratization of publishing” in which everybody’s a critic. True, traditional critics at newspapers and magazine may still be influential, but readers give as much or more weight to reviews by bloggers, customers, book clubs and, of course, themselves.

Theater criticism, on the other hand, has remained more parochial and elitist. A handful of trusted reviewers still seems to reign, and among these few, for Broadway shows especially, the New York Times has inordinate power.

Fighting Back

LuPone is both victim and victor to this oddly provincial tendency. She has even been doubly damned: Despite her incredible talent and wildly favorable notices in Europe, LuPone has been the subject of hostile critics in New York not just for a few years but for entire decades.

This forced LuPone to re-earn audience regard every time she appeared onstage. For example, thanks to early publicity, tickets for Evita, her first big hit, were sold out so far in advance that LuPone and her co-star Mandy Patinkin had to outlast the sour impact of New York critics who hated her performance. This surprised even LuPone: Continue reading

Why Authors Are Furious, Part 2

I STILL DON’T BLAME THEM

As mentioned last week, I don’t blame authors for blowing up at reviewers who spoil the ending or otherwise ruin the experience for the very readers they’re supposed to serve.

This is a time when newspapers are trying to win back readers by saying, “Don’t bother with those slovenly customer reviews on Amazon! We have professional reviewers for you. We pay them for their skills. You can trust what they say.”

Uh huh. That would be fine if  these same critics weren’t violating every rule in the criticism handbook (not that there is one) about, you know,  blabbing key details that happen midway or stepping in front of the material to point at themselves or digressing endlessly until the subject of review (could be a movie or play, too) dies on the vine of TMI (too much information).

Giving Away the Ending

Here’s the kind of language I hate: After a long and thoughtful review of a certain movie (I’m not going to mention titles),  the otherwise fastidious Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer gives the whole thing away by writing: “In the end, Maggie is reconciled with TomAndrew Sarris as he and Sarah take their child away for further treatment.” That’s great Mr. Sarris: In one swoop of betrayal, you’ve just told us the battling couple gets back together, there’s hope for the child and there’s no reason for readers to stick around for the ending.

Or this: “When it ends, in shocking carnage, the teenage mind briefly and improbably makes perfect sense.” This from another writer yet, Chandra Prasad, giving thumbnail reviews of her favorite books to The Week magazine. Chandra PrasadDon’t you think in a 45-word review you could talk about something else you liked about this book?

This one kills me: “Mr. Hely doesn’t know how to end this book. In the final chapters he torpedoes Pete’s cynicism in ways that will disappoint anyone who was enjoying the jaundiced humor.” First of all, NYT reviewer Janet Maslin who should be ashamed,  it’s not the business of critics to guess what the author does or does not know how to do.Janet MaslinSecond, there’s nothing more deflating for the reader than to learn that all the humor leading up to the end is going to fall flat.

Even a hint at the way a story ends wrecks the entire experience. Readers find themselves anticipating what’s coming rather than enjoy what’s unfolding. As much as I admire the usually disciplined Michiko Kakutani in the daily New York times,  I could not believe her comment that a first novel is “flawed by a predictable and unsatisfying ending.” Oh, how ruinously hath the seed been planted!  It’s hard to get hooked on a novel knowing it’s going to be “unsatisfying” in the end!

Michiko KakutaniHere’s Rule #1 of the (nonexistent) Critical Writing Handbook:  If you want to say something about an ending, or really anything that happens after the first chapter, don’t even allude to the part in the story where it occurs. Make your point but stay away from the timing. In the Prasad case, the critic might say, “the author is capable of shocking carnage, and ….” or in the Kakutani review, “the narrative can be predictable and sometimes unsatisfying, but overall…”

Ruining the Story

And what a let-down to say the least is Maria Russo‘s Sunday NYTBR review of a collection of related stories about a couple’s relationship:  “When, in the collection’s last story … the lovers appear to have drifted back together, even the most hardened cynic might grant them a smile.” Why, you rat, thinks the reader. You want to see a “hardened cynic?” Keep writing.

And I don’t care if it’s a trade magazine like Publishers Weekly reviewing a passing romance by Danielle Steel. There’s something  criminal about a review that says the author  “offers a satisfying twist at book’s end that most readers won’t see coming.” Yeah, well, they will now.

Rex ReedThen there are reviewers like Rex Reed (such a veteran! what a pity!) who announce that they won’t give away the ending but proceed to do just that.    “No spoilers,” says  Reed in the Observer,  “but things take some tragic left turn and two lives are needlessly lost … ” Oh, Rex, honey, two people die in the end? Granted, it may happen that the story forecasts the two deaths early on, so it won’t be a surprise to the viewer. But Rex, you have to deal with the reader now. Even the appearance of spoiling the ending (two people dead, Rex!) spoils the review now.

Here’s another I-promise-not-to-give-the-ending-away-until-I-decide-to-ruin-it review, this one from Ruthe Stein of the San Francisco Chronicle: “All that can be said about their sojourn without giving away too much is that Carlos brings out the recklessness in Jessie and that she is the only one who boards the next Trans-Siberian train ….” That’s a classic example of “giving away too much.” Continue reading