A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a business-oriented blog post, about sunk costs. Sunk costs were a big deal when I was in business school – those who got the idea won the simulations. Here’s the concept in a nutshell: make every decision with a clean slate.
“Simple example: You’ve paid a $10,000 deposit on a machine that makes widgets at a cost of a dollar each. And you’ve waited a year to get off the waiting list. Just before it’s delivered, a new machine comes on the market, one that’s able to make widgets for just a nickel each. The new machine will pay for itself in just a few weeks… but if you switch to the new machine, you lose every penny of the deposit you put down. What should you do?”
Of course, I wondered why my friend sent me this story. He replied cryptically, “I thought it might provide some guidance as your career as a critic advances.” So this churned in my subconscious, as I tried to decipher what I needed to let go of. Critics are a prickly bunch – we issue pronouncements that are sometimes designed to irritate our subjects, but we’re sensitive as anybody when the tables are turned.
This past Monday, I mentioned that I hadn’t loved Lady Gaga’s performance at the Oscars. Somebody replied, “…you seem to always have a lot to say and most of it negative, considering you criticize almost all local theater efforts and said that I sing ‘capably but not memorably.’” Ouch. And I definitely wrote that, before I started the Moss Island blog. I’ve always written about movies and theater, but until recently I kept most of the negative pieces to myself. Another friend suggested creating a blog, and putting it all out there. So here we are.
Now, I could have worded the criticism in question differently. It’s pretty harsh, and not useful (I also sing capably but not memorably, and haven’t figured out how to bridge the gap.) I replied to the actress, and she wrote back. We started a private conversation that concluded with an accepted friend request. The highlight of my day. It happened because neither of us doubled down on an old insult. We had more in common than opposition; she also had the courage to start and participate in a dialogue.
How might a critic be affected by sunk costs? By making a review inappropriately personal. (This is difficult! Interesting writing is often personal, and my favorite critics essentially write their memoirs one review at a time.) By working out another agenda at the expense of the current production. Although past work can be cited in a review, it should be relevant to the current production. Every production is new, and every review should start with a clean slate. There’s a great scene in this year’s Best Picture-winning Birdman, where a theater critic tells the protagonist she’s going to write a terrible review before she’s even seen his play. This is, of course, the ultimate critical malpractice – a writer absolutely blinded by the sunk costs in her own agenda. I love the scene because it’s emotionally true to how many actors perceive critics. We can and we should do better. And we should keep talking. I asked my new actress friend to let me know when I’m a jerk – I hope she does.