Here’s a headline that caught my eye at The Guardian: “‘Can’t I just say it’s tasty?’ Why food critics go too far / It’s easy to write beautifully if you can work yourself into a frenzy of love or loathing. Unfortunately, most meals are just quite pleasant.”
Which brings me to a conclusion I’ve been wanting to talk about in public for some time now: I think I’ve finally answered my years-long inner debate about what critical writing should be, and my answer is contained in that hede.
Most subjects — most music, most theater, most movies, most literature, most buildings and art, and certainly most food — shouldn’t be considered critically.
That’s it. That’s the insight it’s taken me about twenty years to reach. But I need to explain…
Most of us have some interest in food and entertainment, and that’s good. These are the topics that most visibly contribute to what we traditionally consider “culture,” and culture, we all seem to generally agree, is a Very Important Subject.
But most of the food and entertainment we consume simply isn’t that interesting. We’re brain-dead after a day in the cubicle: We want to watch some mildly entertaining TV that interrupts our unpleasant thoughts. We’re hungry in a good mood, so we want tacos, or we’re hungry and depressed as fuck and we want mac-and-cheese. Yada yada yada.
That’s the demand side.
On the supply side, people who make and sell things want to draw attention to those things, and they understand that if lots of other people really LIKE those things, they’re more likely to sell more of them.
From a legacy media perspective (which is where I come from), this supply-and-demand equation shapes the way we think about critical coverage. All new restaurants want to be reviewed, for instance. So how do we structure a reviewing program that is simultaneously personally subjective AND systematically fair? Oh, and beyond that, the review needs to be accurate, entertaining, terse and notable.
How do you do all that?
Well, it turns out you can’t, or at least you can’t do it particularly well, and I think this remains true for ANY kind of critical writing on any TOPIC of criticism.
A critic working in an objectively defined review genre is either going to wind up choosing between being dull, or being “unfair.” And since dull writers are soon unemployed writers, any critic who works in a legacy media system is eventually going to wind up stuck in a form of critical cognitive dissonance.
This is where I think my insight might become helpful: If you apply the idea that much of what’s produced and consumed in modern society is essentially an engineered commodity, then the payoff is that you can stop wasting critical thought on it. You can stop trying to shoehorn the Mediocre Middle into some arbitrary critical spectrum, with good and bad at either end of the meter.
Nobody wants to hear about what’s “good enough,” even though “good enough” is most of what we consume.
You don’t review a new McDonalds (“the ball pit is drearily derivative”), because we all know what a McDonalds IS. So why do we send film experts who can speak authoritatively about the films of director Andrea Arnold to cover the latest installment in the Fast and Furious franchise?
The moment you stop making that critic write about boring subjects, you free criticism from this anchor of objective fairness. And to be clear, this is not to say that critics shouldn’t be expert, fair, and brutally honest. They should be. I’m asserting that if institutions stop pretending that new versions of known commodities deserve equal shares of critical attention, great critics can focus a new standard:
Is this new thing over here INTERESTING?
A new thing can be interesting for all sorts of reasons, but here are the best two reasons for interest in things that fall under the topic of “culture”:
1. The new thing (book, song, taco joint, opera, whatever) is — however flawed or imperfect — subjectively GREAT in some interesting way;
2. The new thing is — however competently made or professionally presented — subjectively AWFUL in some interesting way.
Here’s the deep irony: When it comes to directing news coverage — you know, stuff that’s supposed to be fair and presented without bias or opinion — we already DO THAT. Before assigning a potential article or segment, editors ask: What’s the story? Why would anyone care? What’s the angle? And if the answer is dull, we just don’t write that story.
Now, if the medium is a deadline news show, or even a newspaper, there are consequences to my idea. We employ one restaurant critic. We send that critic out to five restaurants in one week, and we’ve got space reserved — with advertising sold around it — for thirty-five column inches of text, two photographs, and the necessary info boxes. If that critic comes back in and says “None of it was interesting enough to write about,” everything falls apart.
In the system I just described, the “news hole” dictates that SOMETHING must be interesting, even if it isn’t, and that whatever that thing is, it MUST take up 35 column inches of text and come with two photos.
But in a digital world, these worries are much less concrete. Yes, there is demand for “content,” and we can go down that rabbit hole.
Except it hardly matters. If you publish critical writing, the best thing you can do is to hire qualified critics — lots of them — and pay them whenever they bring you something that interests them. Don’t shackle them to objective fairness. Send them out to chase interesting things. The good ones will ultimately write passionately about ideas — good ideas and bad ideas. And ideas are more universal that narrow topics.
The result will that be more honest and interesting than some brain dead review of the next Spiderman movie or some acceptable but utterly average new family restaurant. And the best part is, maybe you’ll find OTHER reviewers who are capable of writing passionately about franchise-flicks or cookie-cutter Wes Anderson-inspired interior design. And that kind of critical dialog, with many voices, might actually improve the culture we all share.
What about all the stuff that gets ignored? It isn’t ignored. It’s just crowdsourced, on Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes and Google and Amazon.
The most important question any culture answers is this: What is good? What is bad? And that answer — like culture itself, is both subjective and fascinating.
Free the critics!