What's So Bad About a Bad Review?

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In Sunday's New York Times, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan took on the matter of Guy Fieri. Or more specifically, Sullivan took on the matter of the wonderfully horrible, totally delicious viral review that Pete Wells gave to the Food Network star's Times Square restaurant, Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, on November 13. Less than two weeks later, that review, structured as rhetorical not-exactly Socratic questions to Guy Fieri, has been shared countless times and blessed with more than 1,000 comments. It's sparked defenses to combat the excoriation of Fieri and led to his appearance on the Today show, where Star Jones sided with him, and he had the opportunity to defend himself against Wells, whom he accused of having an agenda.

In the wake of all that, Sullivan discusses "exuberant pans," as coined by New York Times Culture Editor Jonathan Landman. These are "reviews so energetically negative that they seem to achieve liftoff. They blast into the media world with cosmic force. Everyone wants to talk about them in a 'did you see that?' way. Sometimes," Sullivan continues, "they become instant classics. And, it goes almost without saying, the critic’s fun is inversely proportional to how it feels on the receiving end." Fieri was none too happy with Wells' review; at the very least, his public response to it wouldn't reveal otherwise. Yet it's worth saying that Fieri is probably quite good at being strategic in marketing and everything else—you don't get to where he is, frosted tips and all, without some serious savvy. So did he really feel bad? We can only guess. Sullivan also tells us that Wells went in wanting to write a pro-Fieri review, despite knowing exactly what kind of restaurant he was getting himself into. Of course that didn't happen, to everyone's enjoyment.

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Surely you've read it, perhaps you have favorite lines (mine: "Has anyone ever told you that your high-wattage passion for no-collar American food makes you television’s answer to Calvin Trillin, if Mr. Trillin bleached his hair, drove a Camaro and drank Boozy Creamsicles?"). If you haven't, think about whether you want to dine at this place or not, read it, and then tell us if you've changed your mind afterward. 

But on to the public-editor portion of the column. Is the exuberant pan O.K.? Should it be encouraged at all, much less by a paper like the Times? Sullivan urges moderation—"From Mr. Landman’s point of view, the 'all-guns-blazing takedown' shouldn’t happen often"—but notes that some of the most talented writers put forth the most brutal, amazing criticisms: Garrison Keillor on Bernard-Henri Levy's book, Jon Pareles on Coldplay, Ben Brantley on the utterly problematic Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, Manohla Dargis on The Cat in the Hat. While we're talking Seuss, I'll throw out A.O. Scott's review of The Lorax. These critical reviews are far more fun to read than are the majority of glowing accolades, it's true. We're shocked, we're impressed, we wished we had such quips at the ready, if necessary, for personal use. If we're talking about a small restaurant, a play that a company is just trying to get of the ground, a small-budget movie, or a regular civilian person, such extensive criticisms can seem pretty close to bullying, but with the big, mass-market hits, the things that people are going to go to anyway, the negative publicity only seems to channel more attention, and not just the negative kind. That old chestnut that the only bad publicity is no publicity is true now in an Internet age more than ever, when what the critic says is not to be blindly believed and is often argued against by very vocal "amateurs" (i.e., people who are not professional critics, but don't think they have to be to share their opinions).

Probably the majority of people, however, just thought the Fieri review was funny, and a pretty great piece of writing, too, and also, we want to weigh in on what our friends do; we want to share and laugh and feel in-the-know/did-you-hear-or-see-that? It's not just the writing, just as it's not just the negative nature of the review. This was, I'd guess, one of the most viral pieces to run in the New York Times in recent memory, bloggy and trolly and just fun. It's an easy Internet hit: Poke fun at something that a bunch of people are prone to have strong feelings about, on either side. It's no secret that mocking Guy Fieri is basically sport, but there are people who like the guy. He's a viral entity in himself, the antithesis of stuffy dining or classically trained chefdom (remember that thing with Smash Mouth, and the eggs?). And in fact, this whole incident seems to have worked in his favor. As the Atlantic Wire's Dashiell Bennett wrote two days after Wells' review came out, "When your entire business is built around bringing 'real food' to 'real Americans,' you can't ask for a better advertisement than a downward sneer from the bible of East Coast Liberal Elites." Wells isn't suffering for it, either, and it's quite possible the review bolstered some element of hip cred for the Times. Then there's a public editor column out of it, to boot. 

The thing is, for those of us, New Yorkers or not, who were planning to eat at Guy's, this review is not going to change a thing. For those of us who were not planning to eat there—maybe we will, just to see. What Sullivan doesn't really talk about in her semi-defense/semi-pontification about Wells' review is, what value does the negative review that is also funny or valuable in itself as its own bit of, perhaps, performance art, or simple writing art—lend us? It seems we're over and over again talking about how nice everyone is online, now—online book culture is so nice; some critics won't even give bad reviews; the Internet is beyond nice, crime-fighting and supportive and troll-destroying. (At the same time, there are plenty of people who don't see the Internet—or life, and the Internet is a reflection, at least, of our broader in-real-lives, for sure—as particularly nice at all.) Probably the truth is more complicated than any of these attempts to package it. We're good and bad in this place, just like we are everywhere. 

These "new, improved" negative reviews, they're not just commentary on how a place didn't measure up, or a book had problems, or a movie—let's use the example of Sunday night's Lifetime extravaganza, Liz and Dick, a movie that's deluged my Twitter stream with exhaustive, enthusiastic commentary on how truly terrible it is. Or, let's take Fifty Shades of Grey, which plenty of people hated, and plenty of people loved despite the hate, and plenty of other people liked because of that establishment dislike. A scathing review that was its own art form happened back in the pre-Internet days of an amazing Dorothy Parker rant or Pauline Kael-ism, of course, but those reviews didn't, couldn't, go viral. They didn't put into motion that weird machine of Facebook sharing and tweets and Internet thumbs up and thumbs down and opening up the public conversation for all; they didn't generate a whole new kind of online criticism, the criticism of the criticism of the criticism. Negative reviews are now just way more meta, and way more democratic, than ever. And everyone, but everyone, can get involved. 

The positive side of this is that epically reviewed "bad things" may be less prone to suffer because of all that. An extreme review ends up getting more attention, and gives people the highly available opportunity to weigh in with their own opinion on something everyone is talking about. The Internet loves a curmudgeon, a naysayer, a contrarian. If you jump on the criticism bandwagon of a truly awful Lifetime film, that can be pretty enjoyable in itself, but you can also argue against it. Either way, no one's hurt, right? Often when one believes something is bad, one also believes the purveyor is aware of his or her own failure to live up to certain standards. Take Fieri's restaurant, or E.L. James' prose, or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series, or Twinkies. These entities do not hurt when criticized, we'd presume, because they must be aware they're not the Per Ses, the Franzens, the foie gras of culture. Or do they? And what happens if they're successful or lucrative anyway?

Sullivan writes, of another critic famous for not holding back, "[Manohla] Dargis is acutely aware of how a bad review can hurt — not only feelings, but also commercial success. This is especially true for critics at The Times; a great deal rides on the judgment of the paper of record. Some blockbuster movies, though, are 'practically critic-proof,' she said." Sometimes it's necessary to be brutally honest, concludes Sullivan, defending over-the-top criticism of the sort offered by Wells. Still, "the exuberant pan should be an arrow in the critic’s quiver, but reached for only rarely."

And yet, regardless of regularity, there's another question. Simply because the arrow meets its target, and the criticism strikes home, or strikes viral gold, is the result what was intended? An example from yesterday:

We might need to start rethinking not only the purpose but also the aftereffects of criticism entirely in this brave new world, where kudos can be criticism, the most effusive of positive commentary a weird sort of death knell, and one of the most successful sorts of criticism the kind that transcends and ultimately upstages the object of the review itself. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.