I’ve been reading soprano Barbara Hendricks‘s memoir, Lifting My Voice, and it’s led me not only to a rewarding reacquaintance with her singing but to some thinking about the relationship between the artist and the critic. Hendricks spills a suspicious amount of ink over how she doesn’t pay any attention to critics (whose opinions of her highly distinctive voice have long been divided), but even if the lady doth protest too much for me to exactly believe her, her essential argument–that critics aren’t helpful to artists–is a good one:
“A review of my performance is totally useless in teaching me about myself. Reviews reveal so much more about the reviewer than they do about the artists. Until her death Miss Tourel [Hendricks’s teacher, Jennie Tourel] was my most demanding critic, and since then I have had to assume that task myself. I learned during my first year as a professional singer that a review was not the right criteria to determine how well I had done my work, whether I had done what I had set out to do. I know my repertoire and I know when I have done my best work.”
Hendricks goes on to recall contradictory reviews, mean reviews, and seeing a reviewer who had really gone after her: “He was slight, had thinning hair, wore very thick glasses, and did not look like a happy person.” But all this is to miss the point. It’s not a reviewer’s job to make a singer–or a writer–a better one. We aren’t here to help you; we’re here to help inform audiences and potential audiences. (Even Hendricks graciously if barely allows that she “imagines critics serve some purpose and I do not want to do away with them.” Big of you, thanks.)
If I were a novelist I hope I wouldn’t go near reviews of my own work. What have I to gain? Stars and pans, Kipling’s impostors alike. (I guess I would hope that my agent or editor were paying attention, though, so as to strain anything that might be useful to me through a filter of helpfulness.) Must be hard to resist, though, especially in an age when reviews go flying about through social media and a “we’re all in this together” ethos pervades the field.