The pandemic was bad for criticism with its universal dogma of ‘kindness’. Restaurant, theater, film and book critics felt compelled to be kind, as if criticism itself was coughing at a death bed. But who does this kindness benefit?
Last year I reviewed Michael Rosen’s book about his COVID-19-related coma: Many Different Kinds of Love. I liked it, but I suggested that publishing the notes people had written to him as he lay in the coma was a waste of both their time and ours. Rosen didn’t like this and moaned on Twitter: ‘I think they are the power and the beauty of the ordinary. And how extraordinary that this is ordinary.’ But surely the function of criticism is to try to separate the ordinary from the extraordinary?
Rosen’s followers were duly cross. A few replies later he got what I think he wanted all along: ‘Every part of your book was perfect.’ I hope Rosen — or Mr Kvetch as he calls himself — was made happier by this review, but I worry that criticism is sinking to enemies exacerbated by the pandemic: relativism of quality (you did your best, well done!); the deprofessionalization and decline of journalism; the parallel rise in marketing and the fear of a Twitter backlash, which is laughable because Twitter is the most critical place on earth. Don’t read Sally Rooney if you don’t like her, said another writer on Twitter recently, which really means: shut up if you didn’t like my novel.
Cinema is flagging too. The title of the new James Bond film is No Time to Die. British critics have taken that very literally and applied it to the film industry, not the film. The new Bond film won five stars almost everywhere in Britain, though American — and female — critics were a little less insane. I know that some male reviewers cannot separate themselves from James Bond and are reviewing their own dreams of being. But a five-star film is, by definition, a perfect film: a film that cannot be bettered. If No Time to Die is a five-star film — and it isn’t — what is Citizen Kane? What is All About Eve, and Sunset Boulevard? Six stars? Eleven stars? Pass?
Who benefits from an absence of criticism? Not the consumer. Pauline Kael, the greatest American film critic, who understood that you cannot love if you cannot hate, said a world without criticism is just advertising. ‘Movies, far more than the traditional arts, are tied to big money,’ she wrote. ‘Without a few independent critics, there’s nothing between the public and the advertisers.’ American cinema was declining when Kael gave up her pen, and it has since declined yet further. I don’t imagine studio executives wept when she retired.
Kael would be appalled at the spectacle of film writing nowadays. Journalists meet actors and gasp in awe. The wise editor has given up on demanding hacks ask good questions, and just invites actors to interview other actors: this was how one broadsheet chose to display Daniel Craig this week. It is barely less disgusting than a journalist on its knees, and cheaper too, I would imagine. It is also funny.
Restaurant critics are not blameless either; some of us looked ‘to accentuate the positive’ during the pandemic, and eliminate the negative. I learnt years ago to refuse requests to meet restaurant PRs. Good ones know that all marketing is based on personal relationships, and to know them is to want to please them. You cannot have two masters. I have one, and it is you.
Unfortunately, not everyone accepts this. In 2015, I wrote a long review of some obscene Manhattan restaurants. An editor at Eater.com tweeted her emotional response to this review. She was too angry for it to be an intellectual response, and now I know why: one of the restaurants I wrote about was Thomas Keller’s absurd Per Se. (The quick review is: don’t go there.)
I learned that she had visited Per Se and disliked it but didn’t tell her readers because, she wrote later: ‘I was scared to. It is VERY SCARY to assess a titan of American dining and publicly declare that you find his work to be subpar. If you buy into the mythology of the chef-as-genius, the chef-as-artiste, when you dislike something, you’ll wonder “Is it my fault?”’ Scared of a restaurant? Are you mad? You might think that a woman this socially anxious would think to retire from criticism. Ha! She is now writing about food for the New Yorker, whose readers should check their wallets.
You might think, too, that it doesn’t matter if critics apply a little sleight of hand; if they are kinder than they should be, or lazier, or more timid, or more anxious to be loved. But if we lose the hunger for criticism in art, we will lose it everywhere; we will lose what really matters.