The father of a playwright whose play I recently panned took issue with my review and questioned my critical judgment. He was irate in his email, but what came through more than his anger was his protectiveness toward his son.
I've made a lot of people angry in my career as a critic. They fire off unflattering missives. They lambaste me on social media. One troll threatened bodily harm in the comments section of a review.
Back in the old days of blogs, Harvey Fierstein, furious at my pan of the Broadway-bound musical "A Catered Affair," thundered on his MySpace page: "He dismissed our show before ever entering the theater. I think his newspaper should do likewise with his contract."
Fourteen years later, I'm still here. As for "A Catered Affair," which closed shortly after striking out at the Tony Awards, I've seen neither hide nor hair of the show since. Fierstein accused me of hating him, but it's the work I'm evaluating, not the temperament of the creator. I may not have been seduced by the assembly-line sappiness of Fierstein and Cyndi Lauper's musical "Kinky Boots," but I adored the 2010 Broadway revival of "La Cage Aux Folles," which brought a bracing realism to Fierstein's book. And I gave his play "Casa Valentina" a glowing review when it came to Pasadena Playhouse.
My skin isn't thin, but my memory of conflict is short. If I held grudges, I'd never be able to do my job. And in any case, Fierstein brought me tremendous publicity early in my tenure at the Los Angeles Times. Michael Riedel, the troublemaking Broadway columnist, wrote about the dust-up in the New York Post and then sent me a note of congratulations.
When I sit down to write, I'm not spoiling for a tabloid fight. The only attention I crave is the quiet, reading kind. My personal heroes are writers, not personalities. The quality I admire most in a critic isn't pugnacity but sensibility, delivered in graceful, lucid prose.
But like everyone these days, I've been intensely questioning the purpose of what I do. A pandemic followed by an insurrection will do that to a person. The old normal is dead and not likely to be resurrected, as anyone paying attention to the national reckoning on race provoked by George Floyd's brutal death has already figured out.
Critics have been pondering how to move forward at a time when artists and artistic institutions have been struggling to survive and audiences have fallen out of the habit of leaving the house. Equally daunting is the loss of shared values and traditions. Conflict has fractured our ideal of the collective. Even those classics representing the apogee of aesthetic and moral imagination are considered suspect.
How can any arts critic be expected to navigate these cultural rip currents? For me, the answer lies not in a dilution of criticism but in a strengthening of its truth-seeking mission. We must challenge ourselves to a greater honesty, probing more courageously into the work while separating our perceptions from assumptions and received ideas. Nothing should be taken for granted. No shortcut can save us. Generosity for generosity's sake will only hasten our redundancy.