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by Kenneth Lyen

As a composer and screenwriter, I am very aware of critics. Not unnaturally I prefer the critics who give me a good press, compared to ones who lambast my work, unfairly of course. My gripe is that I think critics wield too much power. They are a bit like doctors. They determine the life or death of a creative piece of work.

I remember my very first bad press. It was depressing because, to me, the critic was totally tone deaf. He did not appreciate music. I cursed him a few goodly curses. After I cooled down, I sent him a letter, thanking him for his review. By then, I genuinely meant it... I think. At least getting a bad press was, so I consoled myself, better than to be totally ignored. As they say, bad publicity is better than no publicity.

It is with great interest that I read the thread in the Talking Broadway bulletin board where a writer lamented the apparent inability of theatre audiences to ignore critics. S/he suggested that people should see the show and judge for themselves. However, one of the respondents said that s/he did not live New York, and relied on theatre critics’ assessment and recommendations before travelling long distances and spending $100 on a show. That's the reality.

Sadly the show that I received the bad press made a loss. I can only console myself that even Stephen Sondheim, Schonberg and Boublil, and many other geniuses (including Ludwig van Beethoven) had their share of bad press.

My friend Thomas, who brings independent films into Singapore, was also upset by a film critic who gave the Gus Van Sant film Elephant about violence in a high school, a very low rating. It resulted in Thomas making a loss with this film.

The Guardian Newspaper tries to give a more balanced view by having two reviews, often contradictory, on any one film. I prefer this system.

Nowadays I’m less upset by bad reviews. I try to see if they are justified, and make a mental note of what not to do in my next musical or film.

Here are some of my favourite quotes about critics:

"Reviewers are usually people who would have been poets, historians, biographers, if they could; they have tried their talents at one or the other, and have failed; therefore they turn critics." - Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)

"You know who critics are?— The are men who have failed in literature and art." - British prime minister and author, Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881)

"As a bankrupt thief turns thief-taker, so an unsuccessful author turns critic." - Poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

"The greater part of critics are parasites, who, if nothing had been written, would find nothing to write." - Playwright JB Priestley (1894-1984)

"To be a critic is easier than to be an author." - Hebrew Proverb

"If I had listened to the critics I’'d have died drunk in the gutter." - Playwright Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

"Pay no attention to what a critic say. No statue has ever been put up to a critic." - Composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

"I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me." - Composer Max Reger (1873-1916)

"A critic is a man who knows the way but can'’t drive the car." - Journalist Kenneth Tynan (1927-1980)

"A critic is a legless man who teaches running." - Playwright Channing Pollock (1880-1946)

"Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post how it feels about dogs." - Playwright Christopher Hampton (1946- )

"Critics are like eunuchs in a harem: they know how it’'s done, they'’ve seen it done every day, but they’'re unable to do it." - Playwright Brendan Behan (1923-1964)

Luckily I'’m not a critic!