In recent days, owing to opposite strains of reader input, I’ve been thinking a lot about the purpose of negative restaurant reviews. It reminds me of the intrigue currently bubbling in literary circles, triggered by the controversy wrought when a well-known book critic blogging in the New Yorker and the new books editor at BuzzFeed both forswore the negative book review.
“Why waste breath talking smack about something?” BuzzFeed editor Isaac Fitzgerald told the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ website in November. “You see it in so many old media-type places, the scathing takedown rip.” His BuzzFeed, he promised, would be marked by the old adage: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
At which point Fitzgerald was summarily subjected to the scathing takedown rip—most thoughtfully by a couple of novelists this last weekend in the New York Times Book Review. One, Francine Prose, admitted that she used to relish the “wicked sort of fun” of writing an evisceration. “Sadly, it’s easier to be witty when one is being unkind,” she confessed.
In time the public humiliation of someone whose crime was lack of talent stopped sitting well for Prose, and she began passing on books she couldn’t recommend. “Life is short,” she wrote. “I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love.”
And then, three decades later, she changed her mind again—irked whenever laziness or ego or cliché or bandwagon trendiness passed unremarked. “I can’t explain precisely why a sentence like ‘His eyes were as black as night’ should feel like an insult, but it does,” she wrote (gloriously). “It’s almost like being lied to.”
So Prose decided that calling out such dreck—facing down these sorts of prevarications with her observation of the truth, like the brave little finger-pointing kid in The Emperor’s New Clothes—would be her new review policy.
What light can this shed on the job of the restaurant critic? A flood of it. In its service journalism capacity Seattle Met orients itself toward the commendable: Employing journalists adept at sniffing out the very finest in this city to recommend. Within a finite page-count that’s simply the best way to maximize utility for the reader.
What this means in terms of restaurant criticism is this: The great majority of times, I labor to spend my precious word allotments on places I want to send you to. A restaurant with a huge reputation or a celeb chef may need to be called out as overrated, but there’s seriously little point in hauling a restaurant out of obscurity only to bash it soundly and send it back there bruised and beaten—nevermind the wicked sort of fun I might thereby deny myself.
Early in my career I was more into that wicked fun, and like Prose have evolved toward a less lurid style. But unlike Fitzgerald’s “if-you-can’t-say-something-nice” BuzzFeed, I’ve got a different reason. I've come to believe that restaurant critics are generally on the wrong track if they’re using the kindness-unkindness rubric in the first place. Criticism isn’t about kindness any more than it’s about meanness—it’s simply an observation of experience delivered with candor and evidence. A critic having a “wicked sort of fun” is probably making it altogether too much about herself.
Does that mean Seattle Met never traffics in negativity? Perish the thought. Last week a disgruntled restaurateur berated me for including a negative comment in a listing for his establishment. (The minute you correct the problem, I responded respectfully, I’ll amend the review.) The week before that, a reader of my mixed review of the new Ethan Stowell restaurant Mkt., praised the clear absence of bias there, allowed by my critical anonymity.
Just as I wouldn’t call myself a restaurant critic if I gave up that anonymity, I wouldn’t call myself a critic if I were unwilling to expose the dark side of a given restaurant. That’s why nobody can buy me meals or otherwise vie for favor: Because there isn’t a restaurant on the planet so unassailable it doesn’t warrant a warning (or ten) for consumers who should avoid this or beware of that.
I wonder how the word “critic” could possibly allow for any other interpretation.