Narratives About Narrative: A Challenge For Arts Coverage
Updated: Aug 7
Amid the inescapable World Cup coverage recently, I was often reminded of this XKCD comic:
While an over-simplification, it does highlight how sports coverage works in a very concise way.
That is to say, it’s not primarily about the substance of the sport (team positioning, mathematical paths to victory, substantive comments on technique etc.) as narratives based on those. The old legend versus the up-and-coming star, the underdog versus the giant, the long dark night of the soul after a disappointing no-score draw.
I am among those who would like to see regular arts coverage, as with sports coverage.
But looking at the above observation, I wonder if that already exists in the form of entertainment coverage and celebrity gossip. Which is thus evidently not what is being asked for.
Narratives About Narratives
What arts coverage does make it into mainstream media emphasises this: it is about providing a narrative about a show, rather than the show itself.
“This production features delicate use of text, leading to a reimagining of Shakespeare’s language that will change what practitioners do for years to come.” is not a good story, in much the same way as “The team have been using [training method; I don’t know much about football]” is not a good story.
However, “This production is the First Use Of X/Important For The Community/Breaking Expectations” does act as a good story, because it fits into broader narratives.
ENO has understood this very well. When trying to get a revised funding deal, they’ve placed themselves squarely in a “ill-advised government planning/spending sabotaging British business” narrative. It’s one which has been well-rehearsed over recent years, fits within both left-wing and right-wing perspectives, and above all, turns ENO into a plucky underdog.
Even if it doesn’t work, it’s a good story.
Why Does This Feel Odd
I suspect this idea of narrative-focused arts coverage feels odd because the tradition of arts journalism has centred critique.
The act of reviewing, or of philosophical critique and reflection on process, is very different to the narrative-focused ‘news’ described above.
In many ways, it’s quite old-fashioned. Older reviewers tend to give an expert opinion on a work, without necessarily fitting it into a narrative. This (broadly) matches styles of reporting from decades ago, which have since changed.
It’s often interesting to those already interested in the subject, but it’s not necessarily an easy sell.
At the very least, the rate at which newspapers are cutting their reviewing teams suggests that they believe it’s not popular enough to include.
I would wager that, if you’re really keen on football, coverage that emphasises the narrative, rather than insights from people who can guide the eye to especially interesting aspects of play and preparation, would be frustrating.
There’s probably people out there providing that.
While popularity isn’t the most important thing in the world, I think that the decline of criticism in UK media, combined with a lack of replacement coverage in narrative-focused commentary, poses a challenge.
Why Is This Not What Is Wanted
In many ways, I think narrative-focused coverage is unwanted because it emphasises the functional aspects of work, rather than the core of it.
It is rooted in the notion that ‘normal people’ cannot understand what ‘we’ do.
I would like to try and dispute that. I suspect that there is a way (for some already excel at this) for the arts journalist to act as guide, pointing out interesting features of a work, and helping people understand.
How exactly they do that may vary. I’d love to see more shows doing what The Great British Bakeoff has done for baking, digging into the nuts of actually making work.
Let people develop their craft on Shakespeare, seeing how they cut their teeth on it; have Week 1 be monologues, Week 2 be characterisation, and by Week 8 be getting stuck into a high-concept production (If you’re a TV producer, I’m available).
That is to say, build a narrative around the bits we think are important. There’s a reason that The Great British Bakeoff isn’t a livestream of some people sitting waiting for bread to rise.
And above all, remember that the UK’s way isn’t the only way. I will forever treasure the reviews for At The Break Of Dawn in Germany, despite it not being a very good show. Each of them treated it as a serious work, worthy of philosophical reflection, and coming to very different conclusions.
They also thought of their readers as being capable of understanding such commentary, and themselves as being capable of writing in such a way that they would guide people through potentially difficult terrain.
In part, I suspect that that leap of faith in an audience is the underlying requirement. How far such a jump can go before being foolish, I don’t know.
But I suspect it’s further than we might think.