“Melissa Fall has such an interesting perspective on things,” Megan Briggs said to me the other night. (Megan is currently starring in DIVAfest’s production of Melissa’s play You’re Going to Bleed.) “When she was here for the premiere, do you know what she told me? She said, ‘I hope that at least one critic hates this show — really hates it — because that’d mean that the play was effective. We’re trying to do something controversial here, and not everyone should like it.’ Isn’t that an interesting way of looking at things?”
It is, but it’s not a completely unique viewpoint. I’ve heard other artists make that claim; I’ve even thought it myself. In our culture, there’s an idea that great art should shock or unsettle its audiences, rather than appealing to their sense of contentment and complacency. I also think it this has something to do with the idea of the artist being a lonely prophet, a Cassandra, a teller of inconvenient truths. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde saying “Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong,” or Groucho Marx saying “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.” Or Meursault, at the end of The Stranger, wishing for the crowd on the day of his execution to “greet me with cries of hate.” If you started making art because you felt like a misfit or an outcast, and then people actually like and accept what you make, you must not be doing it right. You must’ve betrayed yourself; you must’ve sold out. At least, that’s how the thinking goes.
But one of the problems with the idea that “great art arouses controversy and gets negative reviews” is that badartists can lay claim to this as a convenient excuse to justify their own mediocrity. This week, I heard a BBC radio news item about Dan Brown’s reaction to the bad reviews for Inferno, his latest potboiler novel. “All you’re hoping to do, as a writer, when you put something out, is make people care about it, make people react to it. I kind of believe if there aren’t people angry, then you really haven’t said much. So, you know what, on some level, I guess I need to welcome those sorts of comments,” Brown said in a clip.
But reviewers are angry at Brown precisely because they think that he hasn’t said much; they think that his novels are trashy, the literary equivalent of empty calories or worse. Still, how can Melissa Fall (a writer I respect, and know to have serious ambitions) and Dan Brown (a writer of airport thrillers who finds himself in a place of undeserved cultural prominence) both say the same thing about their art? How can they both claim that a negative review is the greatest proof of the value of their writing?
I’m also tired of the related idea that art that wallows in nihilistic or degrading sentiments — what is traditionally meant by the term “shock value” — is more valuable than art that expresses something more positive or uplifting. (Perhaps Allison Page and I are on the same wavelength here.) To that end, I was fascinated and intrigued to learn that the most controversial play in New York this past season was The Flick, by Annie Baker. From what I gather,The Flick is a quiet, slow-paced, three-hour drama about three disappointed people who work at a small-town movie theater. Sounds innocuous enough, but evidently droves of people walked out of the play, wrote angry letters to Playwrights Horizons (the producer), and threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Playwrights Horizons eventually published an open letter defending their decision to produce The Flick and explaining why they supported Baker’s artistic vision.
So The Flick was controversial, but not for the usual reasons of sex or violence or political content or other forms of shock value. It made people uncomfortable because it was too quiet, too subtle, dare I say, too feminine. I hope that Annie Baker took a perverse pride in the controversy she raised. While I haven’t seen or read The Flick, I have to feel that Baker is doing something right.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. If you wish to give her bad reviews (or good ones) you can see more of her writing at marissabidilla.blogspot.com or on Twitter @MarissaSkud.