It's time I confessed: I am a filthy pervert.
I've been spending too much time online, returning to the same few websites. What began as an unhealthy obsession has degraded into a debilitating addiction. After each session, I feel clammy and ashamed.
I've been reading Edinburgh Fringe Festival reviews. All of them. Not just reviews of my friends' shows. Not just the comedy shows. Not just five-star or one-star reviews. All of them. And there's no shortage. The more of these I read, the less I know about the shows, about the Fringe, about criticism, or about creativity in general. My enthusiasm for life in general diminishes with every mouseclick. Yet on I go, ushered on by a demon wearing a lanyard: Broadway Baby, Three Weeks, The List, The Scotsman, The Skinny, Fringe Review...
I begin each review with a quantum of curiosity, but with each passing sentence, that initial interest sours into irritation, then boils into anger. Then I hate myself, rub my eyes, remind myself that I need a holiday, and click on the next review.
I confessed my addiction to Alex Fradera at his birthday drinks last night. He advised me to take a place on the next step of the critical staircase, and begin reviewing the reviewers. This proposal only makes sense if reviews of reviewers are themselves reviewed by higher reviewers, and so on, up the pyramid, until the eye of an all-illuminating God delivers his final judgment upon the entire edifice: "Yes" or, more likely, "No".
While the content of the reviews is invariably at hilarious odds with the star-rating (which is presumably added by a hungover editor afterwards), it's hard to categorise them in any other way with equanimity.
Five- and four-star reviews tend to numb my muscles and give me the sweats. Like a cake covered in too much sugary icing, the delighted superlatives bury the content of the show. Rarely do gushing reviews negotiate or explain anything. I feel as if I am a weary parent being dragged into a toyshop by a spoilt child. "C'mon! This is where you must go!" It's off-putting.
I have far more sympathy for the recipients of one- and two-star reviews. I like to think that somewhere underneath all those Anglo Saxon sighs, tuts and eye-rolling, I might excavate an idea of that performance that had (at the very least) good intentions and a plan (however misconceived) that someone once thought was worth pursuing. I may be wrong. I can only guess. I will never know. A kitten dying of cancer is less sad than a world-weary two-star review.
The vast majority of reviews, however, sit clumped together in the middle, like an embolism in the bloodstream. These reviews are the ones most likely to include erudite references, make extravagant assertions about the purpose of the artform, or to compare a show you haven't seen to another show you haven't seen. Even-handedness erodes to box-ticking analytics.
Not all reviews are badly written, sneering, unhelpful, narcissistic, biassed or bland. But all reviews have that depressing aim of attempting to summarise, in an easily digestible nugget, the divine delirium, the insane miracle that is in the nature of every performance, good or bad. Why, then can I not stop reading them?
When will my perverted gaze be satisfied? When will I finally be able to turn off my computer monitor, open the curtains and face the refreshing light of day knowing that I have read enough? What am I searching for in all these reviews? Perhaps I'm hoping to attain, by means of a reductio ad absurdam, an ultimate glut, a point at which I will have transcended, despite myself, any criticism myself. This is the stratagem of the smoker or the alcoholic who attempts to poison their body so much that the notion of any further intake causes them to shudder. Is it possible for me to reach that point, is there no limit to the quantity of toxic material I can digest?
I'm certainly becoming desensitised. Words repeated endlessly leak significance until they become almost empty syllables. And the claim that the opinion of critics is meaningless becomes itself meaningless when repeated enough. The reviewers have me ensnared in this paradox. I have joined them, these accursed souls, sitting in their specially reserved circle of hell, leaning back in their chairs in the dark, with their arms crossed, drool on their chins and glazed eyes.