'Thanks': On Negative Criticism

by Orit Gat

Here’s what I learned from the most negative review I ever read: that if you’re going to write something extremely unfavourable, make it memorable. On this scale:

Guy Fieri, have you eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the 500 seats at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? Did panic grip your soul as you stared into the whirling hypno wheel of the menu, where adjectives and nouns spin in a crazy vortex? 


When you have a second, Mr. Fieri, would you see what happened to the black bean and roasted squash soup we ordered?

This is from the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells’ review of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s restaurant. I keep going back to this review for two reasons: the first, that by choosing a form – a review written as a series of questions – and taking it to the extreme (‘Why did the toasted marshmallow taste like fish?’), he achieved something that is both noteworthy and hilarious (it ends with ‘thanks’). The second reason this piece of writing is important is a result of the first – this review went viral. And that makes a difference, not in whether or not the average Times reader will eat at Fieri’s restaurant (because, you know), but in the way we talk about criticism. This review will always makes for a great example of criticism that is considered, smart, reactive to the food, and descriptive, while also entertaining and stretching the boundaries of what is possible when writing about food.

Wells’ review was published in 2012, and it still comes up in many conversations about negative criticism. Food reviews are such a great example for many other strands of criticism because they can teach writers how to describe things; because of the ethics of restaurant reviews, which often include multiple visits (Wells dined at Fieri’s restaurant four times before penning the review. It’s barely feasible for a book critic to attempt, it’s uncommon for an art critic to see a show more than a couple of times); and lastly, because due to the rising trendiness of food discourse, restaurant reviews are also increasingly popular.

The commonplace complaint is that no-one reads reviews anymore, and that reviews sections are consequently a nonissue. But we should read reviews, and we should read them carefully and think about the huge role they play in a magazine. The reviews section in any given publication is oftentimes the largest section and covers a substantial number of artists. It is thus a place where we need to scrutinise representation (the ratio of male authors to female authors covered, for example, or their demographic background), but also a place in which a magazine asserts its stakes: if the reviews section is an entryway into the features well, then both the artists covered and the writers assigned may be involved with it more closely in the future. It’s where writers learn to write and where artists often get their first significant bibliographical notation. Lastly, the reviews section has a significant financial role in any given magazine. The fact that advertising and revenue models are changing because of the internet only makes this more crucial: in his glorious rant about BuzzFeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s decision not to publish negative reviews, author Bob Garfield brings up the point that so much of BuzzFeed content is linked to advertorials, and that a not-so-glowing review may translate to a lower clickthrough rate to Amazon (‘Buy this vanilla, middling, uninspired book now!’)

A culture of favouritism, of the nothing-but-good, means supporting reactive writing, where the critique is only in what’s being covered, not in the writing itself. In order to avoid the usual binary claim that without negative criticism the positive reviews are valueless, here’s the New York Times former culture editor Jonathan Landman in response to the newspaper’s Public Editor asking his opinion about Pete Wells’ review and the place of negative reviews in his section:

‘[the] all-guns-blazing takedown’ shouldn’t happen often. There are a thousand ticks between the greatest and the worst, and a great critic is unerringly accurate in picking the right place on that scale.

A scalable definition like this seems extremely useful. So why do we need negative – yes, guns-blazing – criticism?

A first answer is that criticism expands the field. The more all-encompassing art is becoming, the more we need criticism. The more books there are, the hungrier we are for a way to navigate the field. The more of other disciplines the visual arts take on – poetry, dance – the more we need critics to research, think through contexts and presentation, and, yes, judge the merits of these sometimes uncomfortable unions. If there is no way out of a system that overproduces in the hopes that something will catch on, then we need to make room for larger discursive platforms. The second point is about larger structures – the role of criticism is also to keep the market in check. Last year, New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz wrote about matching symptoms in current abstract painting, referring to process-based abstraction as ‘Zombie Formalism’. The weakness of Saltz’s zombie formalism theory is that it spends more time on sameness – ‘why do these all look alike’ – rather than structures: these look alike because there is a market for work that looks like that.

All of the above goes for both positive and negative reviews. But the latter need not only to be good – they also require support. Not only before publication – in order to ensure that the writer is writing the best possible review he or she can, that they make it memorable – but also after publication. None of us want to participate in an intellectual scene where things go undiscussed because it’s uncomfortable to mention them. And in order to discuss things, we need institutional support. Do we need professional critics? Yes. We need them because nowadays they’re proof of just how expansive the cultural scene has become. And we need them because they further extend it. Book reviews are the most interesting case study here, since they are more often than not written by authors, so that one’s work is being assessed, in effect, by one’s colleagues. But that’s not a prerequisite.

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic, and I wish I could take it all back, because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a [expletive] of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, this is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

The above is novelist Dave Eggers, in an (old) interview with the Harvard Advocate. It’s quoted a lot (I saw it in pieces about criticism and positivity in the New Yorker and the New York Times), because it has this sweet tone of commitment to it. But making a film should never be a condition to reviewing one. Because in this larger structure of culture, we’re all equals – the artists, the critics, the producers, the copyeditor – we just direct our intellectual energies in different channels.

In another column for the New York Times Public Editor column, responding to a reader’s letter asking about the credentials of his critics, culture editor Landman wrote about his two film critics that they are ‘wonderful critics, not because they know how to shoot, produce or direct a Hollywood movie (they don’t) or because they fulfilled the requirements for PhDs (they didn’t) but because they have seen a remarkable number of movies, thought deeply, rigorously and independently about the arts and culture, and possess the originality of mind and rare literary skills to make their ideas stimulating to read about.’

That’s commitment. Not Eggers’ ‘saying yes’, but Sandman’s thinking ‘deeply, rigorously, and independently about the arts and culture.’ And the explosion of culture, especially after the internet, has only made this more evident. Though the internet definitely has a culture of snark, it has also modified our writing and understanding of criticism if simply as a product of online circulation giving people a sense of agency. When art critic Ken Johnson wrote about artist Michelle Grabner’s show at James Cohan calling her a ‘soccer mom’, artist Amy Sillman wrote a letter to the editor concerning its misogynist undertones, and posted it on Facebook. The snowball effect of such reactions in other publications and social networks made clear that here was a community that needs criticism and reacts to it because it is part of its intellectual production. And this community bonded quickly because of the internet and its pace. More importantly, the internet also creates different forms of archives: things last online, which is why criticism matters even more today – you can’t really say anyone is going to wrap fish in it the next day – but it also affects the way knowledge is collected and presented. Then there’s SEO: a bad review is followed by a flurry of PR in the attempt to get more press – any press – in order to push that review down the google page. We still emphasise judgement, even online. We’d better. Or else we’ll be stuck with the comfortable, the easily forgotten, the stuff that ends with ‘thanks’ for all the wrong reasons.