A Few Choice Words on Critics
Sarcastic enlightened biased expert irritating fair fearsome —respected
Barbara-jo McIntosh couldn’t understand what had happened. A week earlier, when Eve Johnson of The Vancouver Sun had called her, they’d gotten along fine. Quite well, in fact. Johnson had asked her about the chef, the menu and the history of her central Vancouver restaurant, Barbara-jo’s Elegant Home Cooking. She hadn’t sounded unimpressed. Certainly not enough to warrant something as mean as this. Johnson had seemed to enjoy the two meals she had eaten at Barbara-jo’s the week before-one with her husband, the other with her sister. And she had chatted with the chef for quite a while the second time.
But there it was in black and white, almost leaping off the page as McIntosh read on, incredulous, feeling as if she had been reeled in like a Pacific salmon. And, on that cold January morning in 1991, she knew that thousands of other people allover Vancouver were reading it too.
Johnson wrote about how McIntosh “got her start in the food business” carving roast beef in Eaton’s Marine Room when she was in high school, and said the fact that McIntosh was from South Vancouver was probably not “enough heritage to infuse a southern restaurant.” (“I told her those things in confidence, off the cuff, during a casual conversation,” says McIntosh. “I felt really violated when she ended up using them against me.”)
Anything nice Johnson had to say about the fledgling restaurant and its owner was drenched in a sea of sarcasm: “Barbara-jo’s has made the most of an unpromising little slice of a room smack dab against [a] bus stop. The white linen napkins are folded in one of those fancy shapes waiters learn on slow afternoons.”
“People called me that day and said’ Are you sleeping with her husband?'” McIntosh says. Over a year has passed since the review was printed, but the memory is as painfully acute as if it had happened yesterday. “Maybe she didn’t like me. Maybe we had a mutual acquaintance that didn’t like me. But there was obviously something deeper there.” This is simply not true, says Johnson. She found the restaurant pretentious and insists she had two disappointing meals there. She says McIntosh recognized her, made a big fuss, and dragged out the chef who proceeded to drone on about his food for what seemed like hours.
McIntosh doesn’t remember it that way at all. “The review wasn’t properly critical-it almost seemed vindictive,” she says. (“The review was a little tongue-in-cheek,” responds Johnson. “1 was only poking fun.”) “I don’t know what her education and background are, but she completely misuses her power,” says McIntosh. (Johnson has a master’s degree in Chinese history, but no education in either food or journalism. “But I was always good at Home Ec.,” she says.)
McIntosh is not the first person to suffer the caustic barbs of a disappointed critic. And Johnson is only one of hundreds in this country who earn their living by spouting off about how other people do their jobs. Critics tell us which restaurant will soon have lineups around the block, which film is the latest Oscar contender, which album is sure to go platinum. But exactly who are the people behind the bylines, and how did they get there? What is their responsibility to their readers? Is anything fair game in a review? And how much power do they actually have?
Few newspaper readers in this country would be surprised to find out that most Canadian critics have no formal education in their critical discipline. Nor have they been schooled in the fine art of criticism; after all, there is no “College For Aspiring Critics,” no summer camp to which one can send opinionated prepubescent youngsters who irritate their classmates by ranting on for weeks about the school play. In reality, most critics learn the ropes during their first g few months on the job. Many of them start as reporters and “fall into criticism,” filling the slot left open by a colleague who moved on.
“I never wanted to work for a newspaper, much less be a critic, says John Coulbourn, theatre critic at The Toronto Sun. Coulbourn was working in public relations for the Calgary Stampede in 1983 when The Calgary Sun called “from out of the blue” and offered him the position of entertainment editor. Even though he had no training in drama and only a few college courses in journalism, he “decided to give it a shot” and says now it was “the most exciting and stupid thing” he’s ever done. “I knew absolutely nothing, and here I was with a staff of six writers, trying to edit their copy,” he says. “But I must have done all right, because The Toronto Sun hired me as a theatre critic a few years later.”
When John Griffin was in university he played in a rock band, so he “thought it would be fun” when he joined the Gazette in 1980 as rock critic. “In the seventies I had about 30 or 40 jobs, none of them to do with writing,” he says. “The critic thing just fell into my lap. But the first few months were a nightmare. I had to learn absolutely everything.” He left the rock scene three and a half years ago to become the Gazette’s film critic-a job which he says “is a blast.”
A trained critic is about as common as a Sunshine girl in a winter parka. Most of the people who are telling us how to spend our entertainment dollars become “experts” after they get hired, not before. Herein lies the ethical problem: a critic is supposed to be an authority, almost omniscient, able to separate kitsch from creative genius. How can someone with no more training than the average reader possibly live up to these expectations? Shouldn’t an education be absolutely, unequivocally necessary?
Not according to the critics. Most say on-the-job training can be just as valuable as long as the person is genuinely interested in the subject at hand. “The passion has got to be there,” says John Haslett-Cuff, two time National Newspaper Award winner for his television criticism in The Globe and Mail. “You have to be committed to whatever it is you’re reviewing. You have to read a lot and you have to talk to people. If the passion isn’t there, no amount of education can help you.”
Some, like food critic Cynthia Wine of The Toronto Star, think a formal education is more a hindrance than a help. She says people who have no education have no pre-conceived notions before they go to a restaurant, concert or film. They don’t take things for granted, don’t expect too much. They’re more on their readers’ level.
And being educated doesn’t necessarily mean being well-educated. “There are good and bad schools,” says Globe and Mail food critic Joanne Kates, who studied at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris. “And there are smart and stupid people. Jay Scott [also of the Globe] doesn’t have a film degree, but I would hate to think that someone who went to a lousy film school and wasn’t very bright would get a job over him.”
(Scott, arguably the most respected film critic in the country, does have some education in film; while taking a freshman film course at the University of New Mexico in the late sixties, his professor asked him to take over as lecturer. “But I don’t have any credentials,” he said. “You know more than I do,” his professor replied. Barely 20, he taught the course and took it at the same time. “Needless to say I got an A,” he says. “I didn’t think I needed any more education after that.”)
There is a small faction, however, that believes critics have to be schooled to properly critique something. “Writing about jazz, I earn more than most musicians in this city,” says Paul Wells, jazz critic at the Montreal Gazette and an accomplished piano and trumpet player. “How could I sleep at night if I didn’t know as much about the medium as those who are making it and starving?” Ray Conlogue, former lead theatre critic at The Globe and Mail, who has a master’s degree in drama, goes so far as to say: “Any critic who doesn’t have a formal education will be an embarrassment to their newspaper for their first three years, until they know what they’re talking about. And newspapers continue to appoint people who have no idea what they’re doing.”
It’s somewhat disturbing that these people are scrutinizing chefs, actors, dancers and musicians who have spent years in training and countless hours practising their craft. Paul Wells is acutely aware of this irony. The first time he ever went to the ballet, he was reviewing it for The London Free Press during a summer student internship in 1988. “They were counting on the fact that I could fake it,” says Wells. “I felt like a complete idiot.”
The debate over what makes critics qualified stems from how they view their job and their responsibility to their readers. According to William Zinsser, journalist, author and Yale professor, there are two distinct camps: those who are critics and those who are reviewers. In his book, On Writing Well, Zinsser explains that the reviewer’s job “is more to report than to make an aesthetic judgement.” People like Griffin, Coulbourn and Ann Garber, food critic at the Vancouver Province, subscribe to this point of view. They try to describe the play, film or restaurant the way they would to a friend. Their job is not to write formal dissertations, says Coulbourn, but to tell people how to spend their money. “Most people don’t care about how the food is technically prepared,” adds Garber. “They just want to go somewhere where the food tastes good and where they feel comfortable.”
Criticism, on the other hand, is “a serious intellectual act,” writes Zinsser. “A critic sees himself as a scholar, and what interests him is the play of ideas in his field.” People like Conlogue and Wells view their role in this larger, perhaps loftier, context. They try to rate the experience in terms of its significance within the medium. According to Wells, “If you don’t argue for some position about the function of the artist in question within society, then it’s reduced to ‘I like this and I don’t like that.’ You become nothing more than a consumer advocate.” Conlogue agrees, dismissing the idea of reviewing from the viewpoint of the masses as “complete and utter bullshit. It’s people making excuses for not mastering their field, an excuse for mediocrity. If you don’t know more about the theatre than the people going to it, why should they read you? They should write the review and you should be reading it.”
Obviously then, the goals and aspirations of critics and reviewers are dramatically different. “But what is common to [both] forms,” writes Zinsser, “is that they consist of personal opinion.” His advice to critics and reviewers alike: “What is crucial for you as the writer is to express your opinion firmly take your stand with conviction.”
Zinsser’s credo has been adopted by many critics, much to the chagrin of restaurateurs, actors and musicians who have fallen short of perfection. Lack of a firm opinion is definitely not the problem-some opinions are so firm, so downright steely at times, that the mere mention of the critic’s name can elicit a string of profanity that would make even the crustiest city editor do a double take.
“It’s not inherently a very likable profession,” says Liam Lacey, theatre critic at the Globe. And he knows what he’s talking about. Lacey has been stopped on the street by recipients of bad reviews and asked why he wanted to hurt them so badly. And Ray Conlogue has had drinks poured on him by bitter directors on more than one occasion. (“Standing next to Ray at openings was very dangerous,” says David Mirvish, owner of Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre, “because he’s a very tall man, and you’d invariably get splashed with whatever was being thrown on him.”) “Everyone, including me,” Lacey admits, “reads critics to be annoyed.”
And none are more annoyed than those who stand to be lauded or lynched by the chosen few. People who feel they have been unfairly judged say critics are mercilessly vicious, blatantly biased and unjustly unrealistic in their demands.
When it comes to no-holds-barred criticism, Joanne Kates sits happily, unapologetically, on the top of the heap. In her almost two decades at the Globe, Kates’s acerbic style has won her a reputation as the Iron Lady of Criticism, as well as more than a few adversaries in Toronto’s culinary circles. Michael Kalmar is one of them. The 34-year-old restaurateur was dumbfounded when, on a rainy day last October, he opened the Globe and discovered the hatchet job Kates had done on The Old Mill, his west-end restaurant. “If I wanted to hire someone to destroy the place I couldn’t have done it better,” Kalmar says.
There is no doubt that Kates had her claws out that day. She started off by calling The Old Mill a “sick restaurant…an old dog that closes its eyes and plays dead at the thought of new tricks.” Next, she referred to the century-old building as “the hulking Tudor pile on the Humber.” After lambasting the food and the service, she closed the review by lobbing a few insults at the restaurant’s clientele.
The review prompted a letter to the editor from the mayor of Etobicoke (which the Globe didn’t publish) and The Old Mill’s suspension of more than $150,OOO-worth of advertising in the paper. And some nasty words. Kalmar says the review stemmed from a grudge match between Kates and The Old Mill’s former owner. She says she doesn’t even remember who the former owner was. He says The Globe and Mail was upset and apologetic about Kates’s review. She says they gave her nothing but support. He says she went way beyond the boundaries of good taste. She says everything is open to criticism in a restaurant review, from the food to the people who eat there.
Cynthia Wine agrees with Kates. She hates “wimpy critics” and thinks newspapers should encourage critics to be fearless and harder-hitting. “Anything is fair game in a review,” she says, “because restaurants are more than just food. They’re a whole experience, from the ambience to the waiters to the clientele. A critic’s job is to pass judgment on everything. That’s what we’re paid for.” Her response to hostile restaurateurs who have suffered her barbs: “To hell with them. If the restaurant is open and charging big bucks, my review may be hurtful and damaging to them, but it’s more damaging for the public to be shat upon night after night.”
And earnest effort alone is not enough to impress most critics. “I understand that my criticisms can feel destructive sometimes, when people have been toiling for weeks on a show,” says Liam Lacey. “But I can’t just applaud hard work. Otherwise I’d be reviewing anthills.”
Other people who have been spurned by critics complain of bias. “It is generally recognized within the restaurant community that there is quite a bit of favoritism by critics,” says Peter Oliver, owner of three successful restaurants in downtown Toronto.
But perceived biases can be negative as well, and it’s not only restaurateurs who are complaining. Richard Monette, one of Canada’s most revered stage directors, calls Ray Conlogue’s dislike of his work “maniacal.” “Very often a critic will make a personal decision about an artist and his work. They’re bound to hate everything you do,” Monette says. Conlogue admits he does have a continued problem with Monette’s work, but says it doesn’t stem from a bias, but rather from a legitimate criticism of Monette’s style. “Monette breaks a lot of rules as to how things like Shakespeare are meant to be performed,” Conlogue says. “Other critics love his work. We just have a genuine and profound artistic disagreement. I still like Richard very much as a person, though.”
Another bone of contention lies in the fact that what critics want and what the public wants aren’t necessarily the same things. According to theatre producer David Mirvish, sometimes a show will be adored by the public but the critics will hate it, because it doesn’t fit into their description of “good theatre.” (A case in point is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musicals, which are among the most popular in the world, but are very often panned by the critics.) And the bottom line is that restaurants, theatres and jazz clubs are businesses first and entertainment venues second.
This is cause for continual frustration, says Peter Oliver. “When the critic tells us to do something our customers won’t like, and which will invariably lower our profits, what choice do we have? We’re in business to please the public, not the critics. When critics pan you because you’re playing squash and they want you to play tennis, that’s unfair.”
But what can someone do about an unfair review? “There’s no point in a rebuttal,” says Richard Monette, “because it is, after all, only someone’s opinion, and the critic has the last word.” Usually those who have taken slaps in the face from critics just try to turn the other cheek. “I usually don’t pay too much attention to them, but there’s nothing worse than getting a bad review from a critic you respect,” says Monette. As an afterthought, he adds with a sly chuckle, “Fortunately, that doesn’t happen very often.”
In the end, all this talk about critics is pointless if their words are falling on deaf ears. Do people really listen to them? Not many, according to Robert Fulford, former editor of Saturday Night and longtime critic of film, art and books. “Most critics have far less power than is generally imagined,” he says.
It is widely acknowledged, however, that although critics may not hold all the cards, food critics are dealt the most powerful hand, especially in larger cities like Toronto and Montreal. And many believe that Kates holds more trump cards than all the other food critics combined. “She closes restaurants, she opens restaurants, she has all the power,” says colleague Jay Scott. Restaurateurs say they “know for a fact” that she has put restaurants out of business. But Kates disagrees. “I have no evidence of restaurants living or dying by my pen,” she says. “They might like to believe they do. I’m much more convenient to blame than the market.”
While food critics modestly play down the power of their swords, critics of other disciplines freely admit that their pens aren’t all that mighty. In Canada, where theatre is less a private than a public venture (aside from shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables, which are virtually critic-proof anyway), its critics don’t have much clout. Most shows are booked for three- or six-week runs, “so if nobody shows up, they bring in the ushers,” says Liam Lacey.
If theatre critics have little power, film critics have even less. Even the illustrious J~y Scott admits that his only power lies in the promotion of a foreign or unknown film. With a rave review the film will have a strong opening and its run may be extended. But in terms of Hollywood films, critics’ effects are almost nonexistent.
“Things like Terminator 2 I have absolutely no power over,” says Scott. “But do I care? Not in the least.”
The same impotence is true of rock, television and jazz critics. Diehard fans will repeatedly shell out $50 to see the aging Rolling Stones, despite the warnings or recommendations of a critic. “My good reviews may convince some people to go listen to a jazz musician, but my bad ones won’t stop people from going who were planning to go anyway,” says Paul Wells.
Whether or not the public remembers what the critics say, one thing is certain: the actors, restaurateurs and musicians feel the effects of a review long after the newspaper has been bundled up and thrown into the blue box.
Just ask Robert Fulford. In 1975, he wrote an unflattering review of Shivers, one of David Cronenberg’s early films, for Saturday Night. Over the next few years, Cronenberg continually mentioned Fulford’s review in other interviews, talking about how much it had hurt him. More than 10 years after the piece appeared in Saturday Night, Fulford got a call from a reporter at The Washington Post, who was doing a profile of Cronenberg to coincide with the release of The Fly. The reporter had never heard of Fulford or Saturday Night, but Cronenberg had mentioned Fulford’s review.
“He kept my review alive!” says Fulford. “Everyone else, including me, had long forgotten about it. Cronenberg had become hugely successful, and wherever he went the critics wrote adoring pieces about him. But he never forgot mine. It hurt him that badly,” he says. “It’s frightening how much a critic’s words can affect some people. I guess that’s something critics should remember. I don’t mean that they should temper what they say, but they should never belittle the impact they can have on people’s lives.”
“It’s an imperfect business,” says Paul Wells. “Critics can help and they can do a lot of damage. They can build false gods who get attention out of proportion to their significance, and they can leave geniuses by the wayside until their editor assigns them to write a glowing obit.”
by Sara Curtis
Sara Curtis was the Managing Editor for the Spring 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.