To begin with, I would like to stipulate that I read Pete Wells’ now-legendary New York Times review/take-down of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant and I found it, as so many did, a striking and funny piece of writing. I read it, I imagine, with my mouth agape, but not watering. I also suspect, based solely on my own street-side reading of the restaurant’s menu before The Review had appeared, that Mr. Wells had more than sufficient grounds for his opinions of the fare. Donkey sauce, indeed.
With that out of the way, I would also like to say that I found The Review inappropriate as journalism, critique or opinionated analysis for the venue in which it appeared. It was, perhaps, more akin to a “Shouts & Murmurs” piece from The New Yorker, fact stretched to its satirical limits. After the first few paragraphs, the point had already been made, but Wells was allowed to go on, and on, to no other end than to demonstrate how skilled and witty a writer he was, and to insure that his evisceration of the establishment left no possible doubt as to how much he had not enjoyed his multiple dining experiences there.
So I was startled when The Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan, who I have admired greatly since she arrived at the paper, took time to write a Sunday essay which was a full-throated defense of “Reviews With ‘All Guns Blazing’,” because it struck me as just a bit more piling on by the paper of record (yes, I still view The Times that way) without in any way grappling with the deeper ramifications of reviews which don’t merely damn their critical victims, but gleefully turn the knife. Sullivan’s citation of Dorothy Parker’s famed quip about Katharine Hepburn is ironic, because while Parker needed only a few well chosen, subtle words for her takedown of Hepburn, Wells needed, or at least took, paragraphs, when perhaps two would have sufficed. (Sullivan’s defense was also slightly redundant, since her predecessor wrote a piece on the prerogatives of Times critics one day before his departure and her appointment were announced in July; I registered dismay then as well.)
I stand with critics for their right to say what they think, but when that tips over into being clever or cutting for its own sake, I’d like to lobby for erring on the side of restraint. I’m surprised that Ms. Sullivan doesn’t share that view. Reviews occupy a funny place in papers: they’re opinion pieces, although they’re not corralled on the op-ed page; they’re analysis, but based solely on the aesthetic values of the assigned writer, not any defined criteria; they’re consumer reportage unmoored from a narrowly defined constituency. While those in the profession being reported upon can clearly distinguish between a review and straight news or feature coverage, my own anecdotal experience has shown me time and again that average, casual readers often fail to make that distinction. The Times becomes The Borg for so much of its content.
I have read many famous and scathing reviews of theatre productions over the years and they are etched in my brain; Frank Rich on Moose Murders and the musical A Doll’s Life, both read when I was in college, are two that have stuck with me. But once reviews of that type were targeted at my colleagues and my friends as I became a theatre professional, I lost my taste for them; with the benefit of hindsight, of course, I take greater pleasure going over famously misguided reviews. By way of example, time has proven that one can frequently “draw sweet water from a foul well” in the theatre, even though no less than Brooks Atkinson thought it suspect after seeing Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey.
I’m even more concerned about the aftermath of The Review: how it “went viral”; how it generated enormous press coverage about the review itself and therefore The Times; how it is now the standard for critical disdain, waiting to be topped by an even more withering and witty assault. In an era when newspapers struggle for relevancy and attention, will the Wells review send the wrong message: that in order for old-line media to break through in the new media paradigm, it needs to become sensational? I’m not suggesting that The Times is about to become a tabloid, but when we start reading about how much of the paper’s web traffic was generated by that review, it’s impossible not to wonder whether some latter-day Diana Christensen isn’t calculating what periodic salvos like Wells’, skipping from department to department, might do for business. Also, with The Times a flag bearer for top-quality journalism, reviews like Wells’ give license to critics at other outlets to make their own writing more outrageous and attention-getting when possible, quite possibly without the talent the Fieri review employed.
“Is it ever really acceptable for criticism to be so over the top, considering that there are human beings behind every venture?,” writes Sullivan. “I think it is. That kind of brutal honesty is sometimes necessary. If it is entertaining, all the better. The exuberant pan should be an arrow in the critic’s quiver, but reached for only rarely.”
I can support brutal honesty. I cannot support gleeful cruelty. Inventive? Sure. Over the top? Too much for a generally sober-sided publication. Piercing arrows in critics’ quivers? Yes. Thermonuclear weapons? No. And who is patrolling the armory at The Times, to insure this isn’t an incipient trend? It wasn’t Arthur Brisbane and apparently it’s not going to be Margaret Sullivan, at least insofar as criticism is concerned. And while it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for standing in any way on the side of Guy Fieri and his emporium, I have to. I may gag at the thought of Donkey Sauce as a food item, but if it were the title of a play or a painting or a book, I’d want that work treated honestly, directly, vigorously, creatively — and negatively if a critic warrants — but not excessively.
UPDATE November 26 at 3:15 pm: After posting this piece, I learned that less than a week ago, The New York Times‘ veteran book critic Michiko Kakutani had written a review of Calvin Trillin’s Dogfight in which she mimicked the book’s own verse scheme, reinforcing my thesis about critics going awry when they work to show their own cleverness rather than attending to the work at hand. Kakutani’s device is hardly groundbreaking; I see it often for works in rhyming couplets both in print and on stage, most notably Moliere and Dr. Seuss. In a bit of irony, she criticizes Trillin’s “unnecessarily blah” rhymes, but apparently sees no problem with her own ostensible rhyming of “shrub” and “flubs” or “oops” and “moose.” Having run only days after The Review, my concern about criticism that values novelty over insight is only reinforced by Kakutani’s poem.