It is fashionable to debate the importance of cultural criticism. For better or for worse, this debate questions what criticism is, further questions who is and is not a “critic,” challenges us to imagine what the audience for criticism should be, and further challenges us to think about proper critic(al) comportment.
These are interesting aspects of the debate, but we believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from it. In Critical I, we ask for critics’ stories — and critics’ views of criticism.
Our latest interview in this series is with Adam Feldman of Time Out New York.
(Which critic would you like to see profiled? Email us and let us know.)
Please provide a personal statement of +/-150 words starting with: Adam Feldman is…
…a white, male, gay, cisgender, Jewish, middle-class, Gen X, Canadian-born, New York-based, agnostic, humanistic, left-leaning, right-handed, sex-positive, irony-friendly, allergy-free, frequently tousled, sometimes mustached, college-educated, crossword-addicted, piano-bar-loving writer and critic, for better or worse. I cover theater and cabaret for Time Out New York, where I’ve been on staff since 2003. I’ve been president of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle since 2005. I see hundreds of shows every year. I respond most to intelligence, passion, complexity and joy; I recoil most from what I see as obviousness and cynicism. I believe in the specific as the key to the universal. There are few things I love more than theater when it’s good.
What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?
I live in Greenwich Village. I grew up in Montreal, which was a great place to grow up, but I’ve been in the U.S. since college. My favorite place on Earth is inner spoon.
As a critic, what is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?
I consider myself a generalist, but my gateway was musical theater. I went through a long and turbulent period of cast-album obsession. I’ve also studied theater in more formal academic and literary ways, but the best of my knowledge probably comes from love.
In which year was your first professional review published? What was the venue for the review?
I wrote a bunch of articles in the 1990s for The Gay and Lesbian Review — mostly on books, but also movies and plays. I wrote about Hedwig and the Angry Inch there in 1998 or 1999, which may have been my first official theater review.
Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?
I’ve rarely written about television, but that appeals to me. When you write about theater, you do so with the knowledge that few people have seen or will see the work in question. There’s something appealing about that insularity — it feels like a community — but it’s nice to reach a wider readership every once in a while.
Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?
Anyone can be a critic in the same sense that anyone can be an artist, which is not to say that everyone can do those things well. Being a good critic is not just about having opinions, which most people do, but about having opinions that are interesting and/or entertaining to read. That’s what I’m trying for, anyhow.
Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I look for a mix of substance, wit and — hardest to quantify — good taste. Frank Rich, A.O. Scott and James Wolcott come to mind. I’ve had a great time bouncing ideas around with my compadre David Cote at Time Out, and I admire Jesse Green’s reviews in New York. And I really enjoy reading Helen Shaw on experimental theater. She likes many things that may not appeal to me immediately, but I’m always curious to find out why she likes them.
Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I have all of Pauline Kael’s books, and I find her thrilling to read, even when I think she’s outrageously wrong. She’s right in there wrestling, and her excitement is contagious. I love Harold C. Goddard on Shakespeare; his investment in the characters is so deep. John Leonard was a wonder of polymathic erudition. Lately I’ve been high on the late film critic Jay Scott, who was very funny and sharp; if you can get your hands on a collection of his reviews, check him out.
In hindsight, name one review in which you were dead wrong.
I don’t know that I’ve been dead wrong, but I sometimes regret how I’ve weighed things out in a review, especially a negative one: when the emphasis was off, and I didn’t give enough value to the things that were good. The most painful ones are when I went for a phrase that seemed clever in my head but just looked snotty in print. I cringe at the flip final lines of my reviews for Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Craig Lucas’s Small Tragedy, both of which I actually liked quite a lot.
In hindsight, name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.
Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, or Change. I think it’s one of the great musicals of our time, and the middling reviews it received in New York were hugely frustrating to me. It’s been gratifying to see how well it’s been received everywhere since. It’s a challenging piece that rewards repeated listens; I suspect that the cast recording had a positive impact on the later reception, in that critics after New York had a chance to get their ears around the score.
If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
I’ve been singing a lot again recently, and that makes me happy. But I think I’d stick to writing — probably nonfiction, and probably opinionated — and maybe try my hand at writing lyrics, which I’ve started doing on the side.
What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?
Professional criticism is being kicked in the throat in the post-print age. The resources aren’t there to pay critics, and the institutions through which they could build long relationships with readers are disappearing. That is not conducive to bold writing and editorial independence, and ultimately I think it’s a bad thing for the kind of serious work that critics can help champion.
What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?
There are many more people in the conversation now, and many forums where their voices can be heard, and some of those people have very interesting things to say. And I think critics today are probably more alert to our blind spots and assumptions.
In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.
I recuse myself on the basis of my past sexual relationship with the subject.
In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.
I recuse myself on the basis of my present sexual relationship with the subject.
In a haiku, please review yourself as a critic.
When he’s given five
He sometimes tries for seven
Because who wants five?
In five words, review the kind of person who’d ask you to review yourself in haiku.
Learned the truth at seventeen.