The best story I know about criticism happened in my early journalism days, when there was still a touch of The Front Page about The Vancouver Sun newsroom. In comes Jake Vander Kamp for his first day as a reporter at a big-city daily. Assigned a desk, he is approached by reporter Wyng Chow, who tells him to call on him and his long experience should he need any help.
Then a black-bearded, scowling character stands up at the nearby city desk and scouts the room. “Chow!” he barks. “Get over here!” Wyng goes, and Jake watches in some trepidation as the fierce man– whom he later comes to know well as legendary city desker John Olding – berates Wyng loudly and vociferously over the inadequacy of a story. Jake is astonished when the tirade ends with black-beard screwing Wyng’s story up into a ball and stomping on it.
Now that’s criticism!
I thought of that scene this week during a class discussion on criticism, part of the “Arts, Criticism and the City” course I’m taking at Simon Fraser University. Some of my classmates are leery of the “critical” part of criticism, it seems, not wanting to break the hearts of artists who have a tough enough time already. Critic Jerry Wasserman’s description of one play as a “smart, fascinating mess,” for example, was deemed too negative.
Things got a lot gentler in The Sun newsroom as the years went by, and I must have been affected. When it came time to write my own review for the class, I chose a play I liked rather than one I didn’t, even though it would have been more fun to go negative. Even for an old journalist, it seems, stomping has become a bit harsh.