Critical I: Linda Winer, Newsday

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We live in a time when it is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. More and more, this debate involves dueling, inexact, contradictory versions of what criticism is; who is and is not a “critic”; who is or is not the audience for criticism; what is or is not proper critic(al) comportment.

We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from this debate.
So we ask for their stories — and their views.

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Our seventh interview in this series is with Linda Winer of Newsday.
(Which critic would you like to see profiled? Email us and let us know.)


Newsday's Linda Winer.
Newsday’s Linda Winer.

Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words beginning as follows: “Linda Winer is…”
Linda Winer is chief theater critic and arts columnist of Newsday, which she joined in 1987. She has taught critical writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts since 1992.

She also was the host of the “Women in Theatre” series on CUNY-TV from 2002 to 2007 and hosts its “Women in Theatre” DVD. She reviewed classical music, then was chief theater and dance critic of the Chicago Tribune from 1969 to 1980. She also covered the arts at the New York Daily News and USA Today. In 2013, she was named Distinguished Alumna by Northeastern Illinois University, where she delivered the commencement address.

She teaches frequently at the critics’ program at the Eugene O’Neill Center and has judged the Pulitzer Prize for drama nine times, four times as panel chair. She has been a vegetarian for most of her life and once lived happily with 18 cats. She is married to Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Martin Bernheimer, who covers New York music for the Financial Times. (There must be a sitcom in that.)

Which city do you live in? Where were you raised? Name your favorite place on Earth.
I live in Manhattan. I was born and raised in Chicago. I have two favorite places on earth — in the theater before a play begins and riding my favorite horse on the beach in St. Martin in the morning.

As a critic, name your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?
My primary beat is theater, but my degree is in music. From 1968 to 1970, I had a Rockefeller Foundation grant for the training of music critics and, in 1970, was a fellow at the first dance-critic training program at the American Dance Festival. I’m not sure a real critic is created by lectures and classes. But it certainly helped to be at the right place in a time when journalism and culture were considered important — and to work closely with critics who did the job as well as I wish I could.

In which year was your first professional review published? What was the publication?
My first published review was in the Chicago Tribune in 1969.

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Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?
I’ve covered just about every form of art and entertainment, but I’m still drawn to the time at Newsday — basically from Mapplethorpe through 9/11 — when I wrote columns about the politics of culture. I love context.

Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?
Everyone can vote people off the island, so I guess that means everyone is a critic. This is positive. The more critical thinking we have in this complicated world, the better. To me, the definition of a good critic is a critic with an interesting mind. I do worry, however, about a society that, increasingly, seems to view expertise with suspicion.

Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I guess it would be unseemly to list Martin Bernheimer.

Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I miss Jack Kroll, whose weekly criticism in Newsweek invaluably put theater within a big picture without losing its deeply personal humanity. As far back as my early career in Chicago, I always looked forward to Walter Kerr’s theater columns in the Sunday Times. He could describe a performer he had seen the previous week with such exquisite detail that the image expanded into profound observations. And, of course, when I lose faith in my ability to see theater in fresh ways, I go back to Kenneth Tynan.

Name one review in which you were dead wrong, and why.
I was wrong when I initially dismissed Edward Albee’s The Goat; or Who Is Sylvia? as a highbrow barnyard joke. When I saw the play a second time and realized how badly I had blown it, I wrote a Sunday column which some brilliant headline writer titled “Now She Gets His Goat.”

Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.
Oh, come on. My opinions clash so often with my colleagues that my husband sings “The cheese stands alone” to me over the newspapers at breakfast. (Yes, we still get five papers delivered to the door every morning. Someone has to keep print alive.)

If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
I was born wanting to be a veterinarian. These days, if you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and say I could be anything, I’d be an animal rights lawyer. I would be insufferable and very good.

What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?
There isn’t enough of it. And most of us don’t get to write long enough these days to get beyond the winning/-losing, hit-/flop mentality that reduces the arts to ad blurbs and contests. Also, there isn’t enough diversity in the (employed and paid) voices. I was the only women working as a first-string theater critic at a major New York daily for far too many years. This is changing, but what took so long?

What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?
Even as culture coverage disappears from publications around the country, passionate Internet coverage proves that people still care.

In no more than 150 words, review yourself as a critic.
I believe in the middle voice, even if raves and pans get more attention. And if a critic makes a fascinating event for 500 people into a boring report for 50,000 people, this is a crime against the art.

In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.
I don’t even know 140 characters.

In a haiku, please review yourself as a critic.
It is not the yes
It must be more than the no
It’s always the why

In five words, review the kind of person who’d ask you to review yourself in haiku.
By asking, you already know.