Terry Teachout is the drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and the chief culture critic for Commentary magazine. His writings on theater, music, and the arts have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and National Review. His most recent book, "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), was published in December 2009. Teachout is also the librettist for The Letter (composer Paul Moravec), an operatic version of Somerset Maugham's 1927 play, which was commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and premiered there in 2009.
Question: Who is your intended audience?
Terry Teachout: Ordinary readers. The people who read the paper who simply want guidance about what they might come to see, what might interest them. I think of what I do as a critic as translating specialist knowledge into generalist language so that ordinary people can understand it. I don't write for performers although I know that they read it. I don't write for other specialists, although I know that they read it. I write for folks. That's actually the way that I put it. Just as I wrote my Armstrong book in a way for my mother. If you do that with integrity and seriousness, then you will write in a way that will speak to more than just folks that will be of interest to a wide range of people but first of all, I think you have to reach the general audience. You have to write in a clear, straightforward, if possible exciting language that makes sense to them.
Question: How has blogging changed your relationship with your audience?
Terry Teachout: The most important thing blogging does is give your readers immediate access to you either through comments, if you have them on your blog, or through the e-mail channel of the blog, which is always faster than any other way that somebody can get in touch with you.
I try to answer my mail. I'm interested in it. I'm interested in getting to know the people who write to me. Through blogging [on “About Last Night”], I got to know other bloggers, some of whom have become friends in real time, so to speak. I don't know that blogging has changed my writing because I started blogging when I was in my late 40's, and I was pretty well fully formed. The thing that I think blogging does for many people, which is, make their writing style more natural sounding, more speech-like, was something I had always worked on from the beginning anyway. I always wanted my writing to sound the way I talked. So, blogging simply allowed me to polish this, but it was pretty much where I was already. And I was **** too. I mean another thing that I think blogging will give you if you don't have it is facility because I'd been working as a deadline journalist for a long time. If you're not **** you're not going to get anywhere in that business.
For me, blogging has mostly been an opportunity to react more immediately to experiences to try out ideas that I may end up using in the print media or in some other place. When I write books, it's a way for me to bring readers into the experience of writing the book, all through the process of writing the books that I write. I talk about what I'm up to in the blog. I let people know what I am doing. You can call that a form of publicity if you want, but I don't really think of it that way. To me, it's just part of putting my professional life up in a way that people who are interested in it can access; and learning things from them as well.
Question: Are blogs making professional critics obsolete?
Terry Teachout: No. There are certain kinds of criticism that are being made obsolete by these technologies. Regional newspapers increasingly are not employing TV critics, they are not employing people who are writing about something that the whole world has access to, and they can also get very good copy from wire services, or somewhere else. There will always be a place for -- well, to take my particular line of work, a theater critic, because that's something you can't get off the wires in New York is people providing intelligent coverage of what your theater company in Podunk is up to. And I don't, in any way, feel threatened by amateur criticism. The truth is that I think it's healthy. I think it's very important thing because amateur, of course, the root word of that is love, and many of the people who write what we call amateur criticism are professionals in anything other than name and receiving a paycheck. Very often, they know more than the professional critic who might be writing for their local newspaper. So, really, I'm all for it. It's changing the playing field, it's shaking things up, in the short run it's going to be frightening and threatening to lot of people, but I can't help but think that, in fact, it's going to make the critical environment a healthier environment.
I'm also especially interested in what I call practitioner criticism, which is when people who practice an art form start writing about it on blogs. I think that's an immensely important development. I want to see much, much more of that. People who make music who are verbally articulate. And not all musicians are verbally articulate. But those who are should be encouraged to write about what they do and their perception of what other people do. It makes the discourse smarter.
Recorded on November 17, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen