9/15/16: a few quick bites of criticism

Ian Parker’s 9/12/16 profile of NYT restaurant critic Pete Wells has a few choice cuts about the value and goal of criticism:

  • Wells: “It burdened my conscience to know that the existence or demise of an establishment might depend on the praise or damnation to be found in the Times.” Conscience aside, it’s unconscionable that any one authority should wield so much power, and yet just the other day, Long Island restauranteurs reacted with horror as the Times chose to shutter its local coverage of arts and food in the area. (This, even as they have been expanding their restaurant reviews to other major metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles.) We are healthiest when there is a range of qualified voices working together to provide consensus, especially when the topic is something as exceedingly subjective as taste. Yelp is a good start, but it needs to find a way to be more refined, or to better weight the words of its critics.
  • Wells: “No one likes one-star reviews…. It’s very tricky to explain why this place is good enough to deserve a review but not quite good enough to get up to the next level.” This is an excellent point, buttressed by Wells’s next line: “I’m looking for places that I can be enthusiastic about.” In a perfect world, with unlimited resources, we might review everything and genuinely be surprised by our findings–but if we’ve got to dine at a restaurant on three separate occasions before filing a review, each serving of ink must be precisely curated. In the end, the Times defaults to the numbers game, which is why they’ll cover bad Broadway shows as a warning to those who are more likely to stumble upon them, even if that means they run out of time to cover the best of off-off-Broadway, given the short runs and limited audiences. That’s obviously a bad model; again, the only way to fix it is to increase the number of available, qualified critics, a thing for which there simply isn’t any money. (Even when I was covering this beat with the best of intentions, I still prioritized companies with which I’d previously had good experiences like Flux, or theaters with good curatorial services like HERE, which means that I’m sure I missed out on many up-and-comers.

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