Catch a falling star

Catch a falling star


norman lebrecht

September 24, 2008

Sharp-eyed readers of the arts pages will have spotted that the Daily Telegraph has succumbed to the temptation of appending stars to its arts reviews. It is the last of the upmarket British dailies to fall in line with this simplistic trend.

One of my first acts in March 2002 as Assistant Editor of the Evening Standard was to abolish review stars, except on recorded products that could be quantifiably measured by repeated sampling.

The argument I put to my editor and colleagues was that if we were employing the best and most readable team of critics in the business, it made no sense to encourage the reader to skip from headline to star line, omitting the subtlties of our review. My argument held sway so long as I wielded executive authority at the paper.

Of all the devices that devalue the function of criticism, the bar of stars is among the most pernicious. It suggests that artistic creation can be ticked off like a school essay and subjected to a set of SATs, in which the individual, expert guidance of teachers and examiners is set aside for the one-rule-fits-all solution of 21st century politicians.

I understand full well the busy lives that most readers lead and their need at a weekends to make a quick judgement on which show to see without having to wade through all the guff that comes with a multi-section paper.

Nevertheless, as critics we have the duty to protect art from snap judgements. Judgements of this kind allow art to be easily branded as ‘degenerate’ or ‘anti-people’ or ‘anti-art’ – and you know where those labels come from.

I am sorry to see the Telegraph fall prey to the dumbed-down times and I hope serious papers elsewhere will continue to resist. It is not just critics that are diminished by these shortcuts – it is journalism itself.

Or am I wrong? Your views, please.





  • Stephen says:

    Amusingly, only 30 minutes after reading this, I received an e-mail ad from ENO advertising Cav & Pag (tagline – “A 5 Star Corker”) and proudly displaying, amongst others, the Daily Telegraph’s very own 5 star rating of the production.
    I agree with your sentiments about dumbing down, but I’m unconvinced that adding a star rating to the review does much to disincentive the discerning reader from reading the review proper.
    I wonder how much incremental eyeball traffic an easily quotable star rating generates for newspapers? Any at all?

  • Huw Belling says:

    Mr Lebrecht
    Perhaps in the future musicians can wear a permanent star rating sewn into their sleeves. Better still, the slavering hoards can ‘phone-in’ with star ratings for papers. Each falling star a 20% drop in editor salary.
    The smaller and more democratic the symbol, the easier it is on the eyes and mind. Or perhaps, the ‘star’ itself is an intractable metaphor. Even Wilde, that critic extraordinaire claimed to be star gazing. I can see the strands of a longstanding thesis (Maestro Myth): Wherein punters are inescapably starry eyed in every sense of the word. Have we have been doomed to pith?
    4/5 for the post, incidentally.

  • js says:

    as critics we have the duty to protect art from snap judgements
    Excellent advice. You should tell it to the guy who claimed to have idenfiied “100 best and 20 worst recordings ever made.”
    NL: And to protect the public from numbskulls like this.

  • Corinne Orde says:

    Perversely, if something gets a one-star rating I’m probably more inclined to read it than if it gets a full complement of stars, as a one-star review is bound to make for entertaining reading! I wouldn’t have thought that star ratings had much effect on whether or not people read the whole review, but then I’m an avid review reader anyway and I look back with nostalgia to the days when the Telegraph would publish three or four classical concert reviews every day. For me, the stars are optional and somewhat insignificant extras, like baroque musical embellishments – complementary to the aria but not essential to it and certainly not a substitute for it.

  • Heidi Quist says:

    It does seem natural to think the stars are primarily used as a rating of suggestion to the reader, but they can also be used–as I use them myself–to determine how similar your tastes are to someone, how you can consider their judgment. For instance, if you look at how they’ve rated other books you’ve read and compare them to your take on those books, you can know if this is someone (some org, even) whose opinion you care to consider.

  • Heidi Quist says:

    Admittedly some readers may interpret the use of stars from reviewing “authorities” to make determinations about what to read. But they can also be used to help a reader see if his/her point of view coincides with the reviewer. This is how I use the stars. If they’ve liked some books similarly to my own opinion of them, I can better determine which other books I might like.