In Charles Willeford’s great novel The Burnt Orange Heresy, the indifferent, arrogant art critic James Figueras, musing on his own success, observes,
Only twenty-five full-time art critics in America, out of a population of more than two hundred million! This is a small number, indeed, of men who are able to look at art and understand it, and then interpret it in writing in such a way that those who care can share the aesthetic experience.
Clive Bell claimed that art was “significant form.” I have no quarrel with that, but he never carried his thesis out to its obvious conclusion. It is the critic who makes the form(s) significant to the viewer!
The critic occupies a rarefied place. At least, the paid critic does. The man or woman who commands pages in publications such as, oh, let’s say The LA Weekly, or, to choose another publication totally at random The Washington Post, is automatically looked at with unique authority because those particular publications have history, prestige, and money behind them. Someone who rises to the position of a food critic, or a television critic, in publications such as these, is expected to have atypical expertise that will inform his opinions. Most of us have real jobs, and have a limited amount of time to spend puzzling over the subtleties of this particular coq au vin, or what makes that ratatouille more desirous than this one over here — or what makes “Mad Men” so good, or why you should be watching “30 Rock” as opposed to “Jersey Shore.”
Critics who make a living as critics get to spend all their time educating themselves on their particular métier. They become experts whose opinion can be sought out by others who aren’t as knowledgeable, so that we can get a bit of wisdom for ourselves, and maybe be turned on to new experiences. A critic can be a great councilor.
But it helps if he’s not a complete motherfucker.
Last week, on April 5th, and April 7th, the television critic for The Washington Post and the food critic for The LA Weekly, used their privileged positions to proudly flaunt their lack of empathy for those less entitled than themselves.
First, on April 5th, a person called Hank Stuever reviewed a new TLC television program entitled “Extreme Couponing.” This is a show about people who are skilled at using coupons to drive down the costs of their trips to the grocery store. Very skilled. Astonishingly skilled. Some might say admirably skilled, as food costs continue to rise and household net worth decreases. Most of us can sympathize with the people depicted on the program, even if we marvel at the level of dedication displayed. This is because most of us use coupons. In fact, coupons are so popular that newspapers, such as for instance the Washington Post, carry them.
Actually, some have argued that newspapers are nothing more than advertising delivery mechanisms. It’s those coupons that pay for the papers, so that people like Mr. Stuever can do something basically useless like watch television all day, opine wittily upon what he’s viewed, and collect a salary. But, Mr. Stuever has nothing but contempt for the people depicted on “Extreme Couponing.” And he makes no attempt to disguise this fact; he lets us know how he feels about the extreme couponers right at the beginning of his review, with the title:
The couponers are “piggies.” They are fat, avaricious, snorting, rolling about in their own feculence. Mr. Stuever finds them beneath contempt; loathsome.
…TLC cleverly allows the women (and the occasional man) featured in “Extreme Couponing” to boastfully present themselves as newfangled heroes of the Great Recession, rather than as the piggy stockpilers they come off as, who voraciously amass paper towels, pancake syrup, spaghetti, deodorant, ketchup and more.
Because the people depicted on “Extreme Couponing” are providing their families with products that they like — and of which Mr. Stuever disapproves — they are “piggy stockpilers.”
Why can’t everyone just dine out at The Caucus Room or Michel by Michel Richard like Mr. Stuever does, every night (after watching a few hours worth of television and knocking out a few hundred words of critique)? Why do these piggy stockpilers have to spend so much time finding ways to stretch their dollars so that they can better provide for their enormous, piggy families?
Coupon nuts do their shopping on double- and triple-coupon days and match their coupon archives to the store’s advertised sales; they always make use of frequent-shopper club cards; they also have no problem enduring the hassles of rain checks and mail-in rebates. Their shopping trips can last up to four hours.
Four hours? So much for the principle of opportunity cost. Time is not money to the extreme couponers, and reality is a fluid concept, in which they don’t-spend their not-money eating box after box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. (Which means they’ll never need the several hundred rolls of stockpiled toilet paper.)
The “piggy stockpilers” are also “coupon nuts.” They are avaricious and insane, apparently. Because their lifestyle choices just plain make no sense to Mr. Steuver, who lacks the ability to empathize with anyone who isn’t part of his privileged class. Oh, how could anyone endure the hassle of a rain check?
“Rain check??? I want it now!!!!”
Mr. Stuever has apparently only had to do the bare minimum to achieve his amazing life of privilege, free from want. Just get whatever it is for crying out loud, and why go to all the trouble of waiting for a sale, or using a coupon?
As for Kraft Macaroni & Cheese — there’s a hell of a lot more nutritional value to be had in a single box of that stuff than in the entirety of some asshole television critic’s oeuvre, written for an advertising distribution pamphlet.
Just two days later, the LA Weekly ran an even more robust fuck-you to the great unwashed hoi polloi in the form of a restaurant critic’s ho-ho-hee-hee-isn’t-this-just-so-droll review of The Olive Garden.
First, the asshole I mean critic Jonathan Gold spends six paragraphs explaining how the review of The Olive Garden was meant to be an April Fool’s Day gag. He attempts to explain how inept he is at playing practical jokes; he does this to disarm the reader, as if he knows deep down in his heart of hearts that he’s just a remorseless cunt and that’s all he’ll ever be, but he just can’t help it. But what he ends up doing is pantsing himself, exposing his own flaccid wit to the world.
This year, I was sure I had figured something out: I was going out of town, I had to put together a restaurant review in a hurry, and I managed to talk Anne Fishbein, our intrepid restaurant photographer, into meeting me for lunch 35 miles from her house — at the Arcadia Olive Garden. We had been spending too much time covering Sichuan restaurants, Korean dives and regional Mexican food, I argued, and readers had been complaining about our enthusiasm for the expensive intercultural restaurants I like so much. Harriet Ells, who produces the Good Food show on KCRW, had recently asked me to hold off on noodles for a bit, so I was able to summon the genuine outrage of a man forbidden — forbidden! — to share his love for dan dan mian.
You will note what Mr. Gold does here: He reveals himself to be an idiosyncratic man with absolutely wonderful taste in intercultural restaurants who knows no less a light than Harriet Ells who produces a show for the oh-so-delightful public radio station KCRW (home of Morning Becomes Eclectic!) who feels stifled because he can’t share his love for some exotic food of which you’ve never before heard.
Oh, I just cannot wait to read what such an interesting, multi-faceted man has to say about something so pedestrian as a national chain restaurant that the masses for some reason seem to enjoy!
I would like to say that I enjoyed the tomato-y pasta e fagioli, which was after all no worse than the clear-out-the-crisper soups I make all the time, and that the tenderness of the fried calamari was greater than the sogginess of its breading. I would also like to report that the lasagna rollata al forno was just as good as the remarkably similar lasagna cupcakes from Silver Lake caterers Heirloom L.A., which are something of a local fixation. They weren’t [sic], though — they just weren’t. Nor was the moment when the waiter filled the tiny wine glass to the rim and said “That’ll do ya”; nor the chef’s excited tales of the Culinary Institute of Tuscany, nor Anne’s delight at my abject misery.
Aside from the illiteracy of this paragraph (those first three sentences make no sense together), there is the cheap shot at the waiter. The waiter who, like the extreme couponers of the TLC program, is just trying to get along in a world of economic difficulties (for crying out loud, can you imagine working for tips at an Olive Garden in Arcadia? he was trying to give the customer what he typically wants, and had to deal with some asshole thinking how gauche he was for filling his wine glass all the way to the top and then having the temerity to add a folksy touch which, I would hazard to guess, some people actually find charming), and is forced to deal every day with patrons who create all manner of new and varied ways of testing his patience.
But it is Mr. Gold who wants sympathy for his “abject misery.”
Definition of ABJECT
: sunk to or existing in a low state or condition (to lowest pitch of abject fortune thou art fallen — John Milton)
a : cast down in spirit : servile, spiritless (a man made abject by suffering) b : showing hopelessness or resignation (abject surrender)
Definition of MISERY
: a state of suffering and want that is the result of poverty or affliction
: a circumstance, thing, or place that causes suffering or discomfort
: a state of great unhappiness and emotional distress
If eating a meal at The Olive Garden is this man’s definition of abject misery, in a world in which the United States just entered a third war in the Middle East, in which a civil war is raging in the Ivory Coast, in which tens of thousands of people have been killed in the drug war in Mexico, well, then, yes, I know that he’s being hyperbolic but Mr. Gold is just a big giant asshole, isn’t he?
There’s an old cliche of the man with the large, powerful automobile supposedly overcompensating for some perceived inadequacy — usually in the girth and/or length of the penis. Jonathan Gold’s review of The Olive Garden reads like the restaurant review equivalent of that large, powerful automobile. Really, I am a clever man. Can’t you tell by the withering way in which I absolutely demolished this institution, with its frittas and unlimited breadsticks, and its ridiculous clientele and employees? That such a piece of shrill pretension could appear in the pages of a weekly paper which seems to get the bulk of its money from advertising for massage parlors and escorts would probably be especially galling to someone with even a modicum of self-awareness. I don’t think Mr. Gold is such a man.
Critics don’t have to be likable, nor do they have to be compromising in their opinions. They don’t have to share the tastes of the layperson — in fact, it should raise suspicion when they do. But if they lack even basic empathy, they are completely useless, except to those who share exactly the same prejudices. In that case, they are merely talking to themselves and their own kind — they’re provincial, and small-minded. Mr. Gold and Mr. Stuever are both shallow, pretentious, tedious, predictable, pseudo-intellectual halfwits. Critics should attempt to reach out beyond their small circle. One would think that’s what they would want — to share their expertise with as many people as possible. To promote that which they like in a way that will entice people to step outside their own comfort zone and maybe try something new (or, conversely, to avoid that which has less merit). The critic who is hostile to his potential audience is alienating, and neuters himself. Personally, I’d rather spend time with any of the people profiled on “Extreme Couponing,” or with the waiter who cheerfully said, “That’ll do ya,” even though he was dealing with a complete asshole whose attitude was no doubt ruining his day. I have a feeling I would learn much more from them.
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