On Wednesday, we suggested that the career food critic may be an endangered journalistic species, as fewer outlets seem interested in (or can afford) keeping a critic in place for decades. The counterpoint to that is that the job of full-time critic, which has always had its hidden drawbacks, has gotten harder of late. It's not the bucolic, eat-write-repeat process it once was, but has expanded to include blogging, tweeting, and general hobnobbing online, in addition to what's often an exhaustive dining schedule. There may be fewer full-time critic gigs available, but they're the not the dream jobs they once were.
On Thursday evening Village Voice critic Robert Sietsema pointed out on the Fork in the Road blog that departing New York Times critic Sam Sifton's 40-hour week of simply eating was just the start of the rest of the work a critic's now expected to do.
Back in the Age of [former Times critic] Ruth [Reichl], it was merely a matter of going out to eat all the time at high-end restaurants, where a meal usually took three or four hours. You do that, say, 11 or 12 times a week, lunch and dinner plus travel time, and you've used up 40 or more hours per week already just eating, weekdays and weekends included. Goodbye family. To then have to sit down and write a long prose masterpiece of 1100 or 1200 words week after week required stamina, even back then. Times reviews are significantly longer than those at other papers, and crammed with details that the critic himself must initially fact-check.
Nowadays, in addition, the critic must blog extensively, answer reader questions, write best-of lists, tweet, and see to other social media concerns, as well as write extensive features that require him to travel quite literally around the globe. Plus spending time with editors, fact checkers, copyeditors, etc., as all this prose is processed into print.
Burnout, Sietsema contended, was inevitable. In our own commenting section, SF Weekly critic Jonathan Kauffman pointed out that he and his fellow New Times critics are tasked not just with blogging and general reporting, but also with the long-form reviews his predecessor, Meredith Brody, once did as her sole job.
As the critic's workload increases to the point of burnout, however, it's worth remembering the job has always had its downsides, purely because it takes a normal human function, something many of us associate deeply with pleasure and comfort, and turns it into work. Back in January, Ari LeVaux took on that conundrum on TheAtlantic.com: "If I listened to my gut I wouldn't eat half of what I swallow in the line of duty, and if I listened to my heart, I'd eat even less. I'm much closer to being a militant locavore than most readers of my restaurant reviews would ever suspect, but as a critic I have to judge the dishes on their own terms, evaluating them according to criteria that a majority of readers can relate to."