Why are fights between critics so tame?

What does it mean when two critics—both reasonable, educated people, well-versed in the artistic genre they have made their focus—come to drastically different conclusions about a work of art? The Times asked this question last week after publishing two conflicting reviews of Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s new Broadway production of dances set to Frank Sinatra songs. Charles Isherwood, a theater critic for the paper, exulted in the show’s dazzling “pyrotechnics,” seeing its (admittedly generic) characters as archetypes of romantic desire. The dance critic Alastair Macaulay, on the other hand, found the dances “less sensational than sensationalistic,” bemoaned the lack of chemistry between the dancers, and finally deemed the entire production “shallow.”

The dueling-opinions phenomenon isn’t limited to the professionals: we’ve all encountered reviews in which the critic seems to have read an entirely different book or seen a different film than the one we loved (or deplored). Is it true, as the proverb goes, that in matters of taste there can be no dispute? Since Kant, at least, judgments of taste have been understood to be primarily subjective, governed less by inherent, empirical attributes of a work than by the personality and intellect of its assessor. But this view overlooks the niggling fact that few of us, when encountering an opinion of a work of art diametrically opposed to our own, are magnanimous enough to declare the merits of both positions and call it a draw. No: we believe that our position is right—otherwise why would we have argued for it in the first place?—and the other side is wrong.

But this is rarely admitted in polite company. Certainly Isherwood and Macaulay, who continued at it for a few rounds on the Times ArtsBeat blog, made no attempt to resolve their dispute. Apart from the essentials, there is almost nothing about the show the two critics agree on. Isherwood argues that Tharp, choreographing for Broadway, needed to “consider the perceptions of audiences who are not necessarily sophisticated viewers of dance,” and continues: “If [the show] seeks to entertain rather than show off Ms. Tharp’s gifts at their most subtle, that’s only to be expected.” Macaulay shoots back that venue has nothing to do with judgment. “We’re critics: our first task is not to determine what big-theater audiences will like but what we think is good and why,” he writes. Isherwood argues that the show, set in a nightclub, isn’t supposed to be about intimacy (which Macaulay failed to find in it), but rather about “the performative aspects of romantic attachment, the roles that men and women play when they are courting each other in public … the pas de deux as a public mating dance.” Macaulay agrees, but finds the dancers’ gestures vulgar and their performances unabsorbing. They can’t even agree on the musical arrangement, in which Sinatra’s recorded vocals are accompanied by a live band: Isherwood calls this “a daring choice that works disarmingly well,” Macaulay finds it “bizarre and exploitative.”

The strangest thing about these disputes is that it’s often the very same attributes of a work that appeal to one person that offend the other. I discovered this myself when I was in the dueling-critics box a few years ago, when Janet Maslin published a condescending pan of Charles Bock’s novel Beautiful Children, one of my favorite books of the last few years, and then a rave of James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning, which I couldn’t stand. In Frey’s book, she saw a “captivating urban kaleidoscope”; I found it stereotyped and cliché-ridden. Bock’s novel, on the other hand, I found gorgeously written and structured, its characters tenderly and originally drawn. Maslin thought it struggled for dramatic momentum and judged it “covertly mundane” and ultimately “pointless.” I might point out smugly that the market, as well as critical consensus, turned out to be on my side: Bock’s book did well for a first novel, Frey’s was an atrocious flop. But a book that’s initially rejected by either readers or critics can live a long second life as an acknowledged masterpiece, as novels as different as Call It Sleep and Lolita remind us.

The works that make people violently disagree are often the ones that push the boundaries of a genre in one way or another. Boundary-pushing, obviously, is no guarantee of greatness: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, beloved and prize-bedecked in France and almost universally hated elsewhere (including by me), is the best recent example. But historically, it’s happened over and over that the critics who fail to see the merit in an unconventional artistic form—who found Impressionism vulgar or judged Lady Chatterley’s Lover as pornography—turn out to have been wrong, no quotation marks required. They were too small-minded, too bound within their own parameters, to be capable of a new way of understanding art. So why, faced with a dispute like Isherwood and Macaulay’s, do we continue to insist that critical judgment is arbitrary, to pretend disingenuously that there is no such thing as right and wrong, good taste and bad? To acknowledge the subjectivity of our judgments is not to imply that they are all equally valid. I know that when I see a review by a critic whose opinion differs sharply from mine, my first instinct isn’t to throw up my hands and remind myself that taste is relative. It’s to wonder if I was wrong—if I overlooked something great or something terrible, if a misreading or misunderstanding set my mind off on a tangent the writer never intended, if I was too generous in disregarding flaws because I found the writer’s worldview so sympathetic or was dazzled by the skill of his or her writing. (Will a future generation judge me as a philistine for failing to appreciate Littell, or as a maverick for championing writers like Bock and David Mitchell?) And similarly, when I’ve discovered something in another critic’s writing that strikes me as a blatant misreading or misunderstanding, it casts a pall over the rest of that person’s work for me. I will have to be persuaded to trust him or her again.

Macaulay and Isherwood ended their dispute in the way such disputes always seem to end: by convivially inviting each other out for drinks in a show of collegiality that seemed, frankly, a bit forced—a Broadway beer summit. Granted, the stakes weren’t that high: they disagreed over a show that combined the rumba with “My Way.” But a taste judgment, after all, is a kind of value judgment, even if we can’t always articulate those values exactly. What we like reveals something about the sort of person we are. And a serious critic takes his judgments seriously, as Macaulay’s side of the discussion demonstrates particularly well. Different works require different kinds of judgments, he allows, but “there are larger criteria—truth, beauty, humanity—that we do apply all the time, even though … we may use them or recognize them differently.” A critic whom I know and respect, avowing his admiration for a particular author, once told me that a person who couldn’t appreciate this man’s work was a person he wouldn’t want to have as his friend. Just to be on the safe side—I admire this man, but our opinions of books rarely match—I never read the book he was so passionately recommending.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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