info 04.8.04

The Critics

Let's step back a minute.

The firestorm in the insular world of this town's media over Amanda Hesser, interim restaurant critic at the Times, may be puzzling to some. Why should New Yorkers care about what may seem like nothing more than intermasthead sniping? That it is a firestorm at all, though, says something worth considering about the critic's role in the life of the city — at least this city. And to our way of thinking, it matters.

We'll focus on the theatre and the restaurant world because of the unique effect of critics in those two areas. With a film, say, or a book, a negative review may not be helpful, but the thing itself continues to exist, regardless of critical reaction. The inherently ephemeral nature of restaurants and theatre productions means that negative critical reaction can effectively close a business down. That makes the critic's words in those fields especially fraught.There are reviewers out there who consider themselves consumer advocates, helping readers spend their money wisely. It's a thumbs up/thumbs down mentality and there's nothing inherently wrong with it. But the best critics have always brought much more to their analyses: crucially, a sense of context and the weight of institutional memory.

If you're reviewing a play by, say, Jon Robin Baitz, you can't be an effective advocate for the reader if you don't bring full knowledge of Mr. Baitz's career to the table. And not just that: you should also be able to place the play in historical, stylistic, and theatrical context. Critics (good critics, in our view) have taken something of a curatorial role. Think of Pauline Kael on movies. It's not really about nurturing, we wouldn't call it 'being supportive', but it is at least cognizant of an artist's career, of a trajectory, of how the threads have come to together. It may be tough love, but the love for the form (and often for the practitioners) comes through. The artist and the critic are in it for the long haul.

Walter Kerr once wrote about playwrights, "Talent needs exercise, an open field and an unfettered stride, if it is to discover precisely what it is and where it ought to be going…If the best new talent is to become the best mature talent, generosity is dearly wanted…" Reviewers weren't always adversaries; they could be almost collegial.

In another essay, Mr. Kerr wrote about the National Critics Institute (now the O'Neill Critics Institute) in Connecticut which was formed essentially to help playwrights and critics understand each better. "It is no doubt good for a critic, now and again, to become involved in the making off a play; it is surely good for the playwright to deal, however temporarily, with a reviewer who is not so much fiend as friend." He writes of one such session: "Prowling through the big red barn on the premises, I was cheered to see Edith Oliver of The New Yorker sitting most casually on the floor alongside her assigned author, checking the manuscript with him while keeping an eye both generous and sharp on the players who were giving life to his lines."

That word 'generous' again. And you could see that 'generous and sharp' approach taken by many reviewers around town. When Clive Barnes reviewed "Pacific Overtures" for the Times in 1976, he summed up his review this way: "…the attempt is so bold and the achievement so fascinating that its obvious faults demand to be overlooked. It tries to soar — sometimes it only floats, sometimes it actually sinks — but it tries to soar."

The best critics in the theatre and food reviewing at the Times — Kerr, Frank Rich, and Ruth Reichl, to name three, believed in that ethos. These days, and not just at the Times, there's a one-off feel to reviewing. So it's no surprise that in the Observer, the Times' Styles section editor, Barbara Graustark, is quoted saying, "The reviewer writes the review and has no obligation to heed an earlier reviewer's reaction." We think that is precisely wrong.

Institutional memory takes two forms. There's the institutional memory of the critic's own paper and there's the institutional memory of the industry being reviewed. Both need to inform the analysis. Of course a reviewer will reach his or her own conclusions, but being heedless of what came before leads to exactly the kind of disjointed, decontextualized appraisal that understandably drives artists, and chefs, and readers to varying states of distraction.

When Ms. Hesser stripped Montrachet of one star recently, she was shaking a web that traces back almost two decades. If we've got our math right, Ms. Hesser was 13 years old when Montrachet first opened. Now, you don't have to be wizened to write good criticism, but you do need to be wise. It isn't that Ms. Hesser oughtn't be allowed to take a star from Montrachet; it's that she appears to have done it lightly. The Observer reports: "NY1's Sam Roberts asked [Ms. Hesser] on-camera, 'When a restaurant goes from a three-star to a two-star, does it really have an impact?' Ms. Hesser giggled. 'I guess they'll be disappointed!'" There's a similar strain of callowness in her writing.

Ms. Hesser also got herself into some difficulties for reviewing Spice Market without disclosing a connection to its chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and failing to mention Gray Kunz's connection to the restaurant. Yesterday's underwhelming take on Katy Sparks, an excellent chef, didn't help. But the vitriol floating around seems to stem from a deeper source. It's okay, and probably healthy, for blogs and alternative media to be bomb throwers. New Yorkers, though, don't want to see the critics' chairs at an institution like the Times treated fecklessly, nor its critics being profligate with the words they choose. It diminishes the discourse. And that's a disservice to the artists and chefs that come under scrutiny and to the reader as well. We think it helps explain why Ms. Hesser's seat has been so hot during her brief tenure as restaurant critic.

On all sides, generosity is dearly wanted.
Yesterday's MUG: Manhattan Waiter


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