A gastropub in San Diego – with the impeccable hipster name of Craft and Commerce – has taken to broadcasting bad reviews of its food in its washrooms. According to Restaurant Hospitality magazine, the place was so taken by the tone of some of the critiques posted on Yelp, it turned them into pseudo-earnest audio recordings and uses them as a soundtrack in the toilets. This is a copy, of course, of the popular Internet series "Real Actors Read Yelp," a meme that shows how much fun can be had from disappointment and hostility.
Why are mean reviews so much more fun to read? Why do we settle in, smirking, to devour a review excoriating a movie we never had any intention of seeing, a restaurant in a city a thousand miles away? What is it about the wit that arises from scorn, or from condescension or from sheer rage, that makes it so much more enjoyable than even the most eloquent of praise? Clever vitriol is entertainment in itself, whereas a high-spirited recommendation is just information.
It's useful to find that a restaurant is comfortable and that the food is delicious. But how do you make that funny? Read, instead, A.A. Gill in Vanity Fair, about a restaurant you will never set foot in: "It's a long, dark corridor with luggage racks stretching the length of the room. It gives you the feeling of being in a second-class railway carriage in the Balkans. It's painted a shiny, distressed dung brown. The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appeal and the awkward sense that you might be a suppository."
Obviously, the point of writing like this is not to draw attention to the restaurant, but to the writing, to the essay as entertainment. The restaurant is long forgotten.
That's precisely what displeases the reviewers of reviews, the critics of critics, who argue that a gleefully bad review is just a writer showing off. To draw attention away from the cultural product under discussion, and from analysis of what it's trying to do and its function in society and larger questions like that, is bad form.
This discussion is front and centre in the culture pages these days, again, largely because of The New York Times and a couple of recent flamethrower wails from angry critics. The biggest kerfuffle has been about a funny, trashing restaurant review of a large tourist-trap restaurant in Times Square. (TV host Guy Fieri's Guy's American Kitchen). It was written as a series of questions to the famous restaurateur. ("Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? … Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?"). It got a lot of attention not just because it was so condescending but because readers wondered what The New York Times was doing spilling so much ink over a restaurant with such obviously low ambition and such a specific target market.
Just before that was a small literary scandal in the same paper: a caustic savaging of a youngish, mid-listed (i.e. not famous) writer named Alix Ohlin. The review, by William Giraldi (himself a not-famous novelist) was about not one but two recent books by Ohlin. Her characters, Giraldi writes, are "cliché-strangled Canadians whom Ohlin flies around like kites in a waning zephyr." It gets worse from there. The stories are "insufferable schmaltz," the language betrays "an appalling lack of register." It is being called one of the worst reviews ever published in the paper. One of the two books discussed (Inside) went on to be shortlisted for the two biggest Canadian fiction awards, which made the review even more curious.
The review is chilling to read. But of course I am eager to read it. Wouldn't you rather read that than another review praising contemplative sensitivity? The question that leapt out of Giraldi's Ohlin review, though, was again, why? Who the hell is Alix Ohlin? The reviewer didn't bother to situate the writer or her works, to tell us why we needed to pay attention to her at all – was she a bestseller, or in the running for a major award? Was she representative of some kind of school or -ism, something telling of the zeitgeist? What were we learning from the review about current literature as a whole, other than the sophisticated aesthetics of one William Giraldi? (By contrast, the A.A. Gill review of the terrible Parisian restaurant began by explaining how popular and praised the place was among expats.)
The question has been around for as long as reviewing has: What exactly are newspaper judgments meant to do? Are they entertainment or analysis? Or useful recommendations? And in an age of democratic mass reviewing on the Internet, does the role of the educated critic need to change? It is now time to answer these questions, but they are closing the lid on my box. I will pop out again next week.