No positive restaurant review has ever achieved real fame. The ability to capture attention on a national scale is the exclusive province of the negative review. The trick is to scathe, and not only to scathe, but to scathe with panache.
Such is the case with Pete Wells’ now infamous review of Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar for The New York Times. The subject of Wells’ disdain is the flagship restaurant of television food personality Guy Fieri, who has long championed the virtues of American roadside staples for the Food Network. The review, which consists entirely of pointed rhetorical questions, punctuated with a facetious “thanks,” quickly spread across social media channels. It garnered so much attention that even outlets usually uninterested in food criticism, like Fox News, saw fit to report on the very fact that the Times had published a negative review. Fieri himself even felt it necessary to defend the restaurant on NBC’s Today.
True, this is a restaurant in one of the most heavily trafficked tourist destinations in the country, so its reach is a bit more extensive than your average neighborhood bistro. Still, it’s rare that a restaurant review gets national attention, and for good reason: restaurants are local fixtures, so the scope of people genuinely affected will tend to be limited to those who might actually eat at the restaurant under review. When a review does manage to cull an audience beyond the local scene, that reach is usually due to its style rather than its content.
While many people gleefully passed the Times link around on social media, some decried the review precisely for that style. The Times‘ own public editor, who acts as liaison to the newspaper’s readers and investigates matters of integrity, called the review “very mean and very funny,” which neatly explains both the attraction and repulsion. She follows up by disclosing that Wells has told her he meant to be neither, but that’s hardly the point. What matters is the infamy the review attained because readers interpreted it as mean and funny. It may be that neither writer nor editor suspected how much traffic could be driven on the strength of so arch a style, but they have no doubt learned their lesson since. Candidly, though, they must have known. How, we will ask ourselves, could they not have known? It has been a decade since anyone in publishing could feign plausible deniability over the pull schadenfreude has over the Web-based audience.
What many of the detractors have said is that the review is beneath the dignity of the Grey Lady. Moreover, the same point of comparison came up time and time again. That sort of thing may be acceptable in a blog, they said, but not in a serious journal of record.
The Times, too, has its blogs. Whatever else that may mean, it shows their willingness to share in the stylistic zeitgeist brought on by Web publishing. So the question arises: Does the snarky style of “As Not Seen On TV” derive from the influence and popularity of the blog as a critical form? That question may take on particular urgency in view of Wells’ pedigree — in addition to the Times, he has written for Details and Food & Wine, and has five times been awarded by the James Beard Foundation for his food journalism. If as celebrated a critic as Wells can be lulled into adopting the blog style, then the revolution may already have ended.
Nevertheless, having asked it, I intend to put that particular question aside. Tracing the origins of Wells’ style is a fools’ errand, as any particular writer’s style is likely to be the result of influences that are, often as not, invisible, as much to the writer as to an outside observer. Yet, granting its similarities to style of blog-derived sites like Gawker, the point can be made that “As Not Seen On TV” serves as an example of the pressures that drive style in the new publishing climate.
It is, first of all, due to that new climate that a review like Wells’ can overcome the local nature of restaurant criticism at all. Even in as widely circulated a paper as the Times, it would be practically impossible for a local restaurant review to attract national attention via print alone. What makes it possible is the fluid nature of the Web. Readers can alert their colleagues and friends to articles more easily. Those friends and colleagues can access the recommended work without having to track down a physical copy. Were it not trivially easy to do both, the appeal of the style likely would not be sufficient to overcome our social inertia.
Online publishers are only too aware of that power to swell an audience beyond a site’s usual daily traffic. They have been trained to think that way by consultants, conventions, periodicals and an intense focus on site analytics. So when they see a review like Wells’ gain an audience out of all proportion with the reach of its actual content, they take note. Scathing, they are left to conclude, drives traffic.
There is plenty to suggest that this latest round is already contributing to the largely unacknowledged struggle over the merit of blog style. Over at Browbeat, for example, Slate‘s J. Bryan Lowder has written an effusive piece calling Wells’ take-down “a critical masterpiece.” Really an extended defense of the review against its detractors, the piece hinges on an argument about what constitutes valuable criticism. “The tyranny of ‘usefulness’ is so tiresome,” Lowder says to those who blanched at the meanness of the review.
What if the purpose of Wells’ piece—and many other works of criticism, for that matter—isn’t to convince, to educate or, God forbid, to provide something as dull as service journalism? What if his review is merely an example of a talented writer responding to an offensive thing in a way that pleases him? If my quote-filled Facebook feed is any indication, he pleased many of his readers, too.
“The extent of its success should be judged,” Lowder insists, “on the merits of its style.” By that standard, the real value of “As Not Seen On TV” is its potential to reform what Lowder views as the stylistic conservatism of the Times. But style is not a neutral value. Browbeat, it should be noted, is Slate‘s self-described “culture blog.” Lowder, by extension, works as a blogger. His praise can be read as an indirect defense not of style generally, but of a particular style practiced by bloggers.
Truth be known, the Times never lacked for style; it just doesn’t—or didn’t, at least—generally traffic in the style some prefer. The missing element, the element doted upon by champions of “As Not Seen On TV,” was attitude. One wonders if perhaps Feiri could find a sympathetic audience arguing the merits of his restaurant’s attitude against the tyranny of sustenance, which is, in effect, one of the charges Wells laid against it.
Another, and perhaps more central, charge was the suggestion that Fieri was unaware of his restaurant’s failings because he viewed it less as a restaurant than as an endorsement of the Fieri brand. That’s a point that few reiterated in the aftermath, preferring to focus on the review’s panache. It’s one of the signal difficulties facing practitioners of the arch style: in its capacity to distract from critically salient points, style becomes a liability.
Which returns us to the concern that started this series: Sir Peter Strothard’s prediction that in a culture dominated by blogs, “the good will be overwhelmed, and we’ll be worse off.” The liabilities of the Web’s arch style are due not to a form like blogging, but to the financial anxiety that plagues all online publishing. By balkanizing print, the Web has unbundled content such that each article must potentially pay for itself. Not every article must sacrifice substance to style, but few can justify publication on substance alone, and many devoid of substance use style to push traffic, and therefore revenue, beyond whatever reasonable expectations the publisher may have. Seeing the number of readers that have flowed to the Times to see how mean and funny a restaurant review can be, its editors will no doubt face the temptation to encourage attitude in its writers.
That is to say, the arch style of Wells’ review is indicative of blogging not because bloggers were in any sense originators of snark and attitude, but because as a form native to the Web, blogs have always been subject to the conditions that encourage that style. Those that were unable to consistently attract views to their posts were culled by the Web’s version of natural selection. Attitude proved itself as a sound strategy for survival. If we want a Web capable of rewarding substance, we’ll need to foster an environment where success depends on more than just attitude.