And then there's the critical reviews, which used to be my favorite part. Alas, I'm afraid the thrill is pretty much gone. You already know about my disenchantment with The New Yorker's theatre coverage: I learned some time ago that one shouldn't read John Lahr before seeing the show he's reviewing, because he writes as though his readers will never see the show under discussion -- he repeats all the best jokes and always spoils the ending. But since his West Side Story rave he's been downgraded from "Don't read till after I see the show" to "Don't bother reading at all." And as you know, Hilton Als was already in my "Don't bother" column. When it comes to movies, I had more patience with David Denby than some, but I lost it when he published Snark. That just leaves Anthony Lane, and I still read (or at least skim) his stuff, but it's not the scintillating experience it once was. The guy needs a long vacation.
Alex Ross and Sasha Frere-Jones are still a good read (provided I care enough about whatever music they're covering). I used to admire Nancy Franklin's offhand style, but it's been a long time since I thought she actually delivered the goods in her TV column. And the last issue of The New Yorker reminded me of one more source of dissatisfaction: Joan Acocella.
I never liked her critical essays, and absence has not made my heart grow fonder. A lack of interest in dance is one of my personal character flaws, so I can't really comment on the quality of her insights into that art form -- all I know is, I never make it to the end of those reviews. But when it comes to books, a subject in which I am interested, I find her criticism disappointingly drab from every angle. This is the first sentence of her December 21-28, 2009, review of Peter Ackroyd's "retelling" of The Canterbury Tales:
The received wisdom on Geoffrey Chaucer is that he was the freshest, clearest, and sweetest of the great English poets -- which makes sense, since, living in the fourteenth century, he was also the first great English poet.Does that make sense? I'm not at all sure it does. Does it make you want to read on? I'm sure it doesn't. I did, though, because I am interested in Chaucer and intrigued by this project. And when Acocella finally gets around to evaluating Ackroyd's project (very late in the day, as per New Yorker book review custom), her judgments seem very sound: she dislikes it, just as I'm certain I would, and for all the right reasons. But the essay stretches across six pages, and most of it is a very dull introduction to Chaucer. Sample observation: "With scatology Chaucer is equally blunt. How he loves fart jokes!" I know The New Yorker can't always be enlightening, but I expect it to at least be clever. This review strikes out on both counts.
It was always my impression that Acocella wrote about literature like a dance critic. (E.g., I don't know if you've heard of Chaucer, but he was a poet, and he wrote these stories, and many of them are quite ribald!) Now, though, I'm not sure. A dance critic should at least get stage-related references right. So what to make of this?
When [Chaucer] woke up in the morning, the  biography [by Ackroyd] tells us, he could see and hear from his window the merchants arriving from the farms outside London, and the hawkers advertising their wares: "Twelve herrings for a penny! Hot pies!" (This sounds a little like the opening of Oliver!, but it is probably true.)The reference to Oliver! is as flat and empty as any other comparison in the essay (wrong century, for one thing), and the "it is probably true" observation is typically useless. (Is it? Thanks.) But the reason this jumped out at me, as you musical-theatre geeks have already guessed, is that Acocella has her musical numbers mixed up. She seems to be thinking of "Who Will Buy?" -- the number in which vendors dance and sing outside Oliver's window on a sunny morning. But that song happens near the beginning of Act Two, when Oliver has been transplanted to Mr. Brownlow's comfortable London home. Let's turn to Wikipedia's synopsis for a description of the actual opening of Oliver!:
The musical opens in the workhouse, as the half-starved orphan boys are entering the enormous lunchroom for dinner ("Food Glorious Food"). They are fed only gruel.Kind of a famous scene -- and pretty much the opposite of what Acocella had in mind. Is this a major error? In the scheme of things, no. But here are some questions for the editor: Why mention Oliver! at all? And if you're going to let the reference stand, why get the details wrong? And if you're going to get the details wrong, why am I reading six pages' worth of this critic's thoughts on Chaucer?