Not everyone agreed with my heartfelt belief that Yelp Must Die. There was a very spirited discussion over at Instapundit, where my friend Ed Driscoll had graciously posted a link. Currently, that discussion is over 250 comments long, several of which express sentiments similar to this one.
The guy sounds like an elitist ass to me. Apparently only certain people that he approves of should be allowed voice there opinions on a restaurant.
Oddly, while I may be an ass, I’m not an elitist ass. Nor do I, as some suggested, look down upon people who eat at Red Lobster. Nor am I, as others suggested, a professional restaurant critic.
What I am is a history professor who likes to eat, enjoys good writing, and is exasperated at Yelp.
As for restaurant criticism, let me remind you of what I said.
Writing good criticism, even restaurant criticism, isn’t something anyone can do. Not many people can write well, and most who do, don’t have the critical sense or sufficient taste to be good at criticism.
As much as I might enjoy having someone else pay for dinner, I have never thought I’d make a very good restaurant critic. While I am a very good writer, I am also an indiscriminate eater. My critical sense about food is deficient. I like to eat food, sometimes even bad food.
As for what IS proper restaurant criticism, I’m a giant fan of the Pixar movie Ratatouille, not because of the story of a sewer rat who becomes a chef, but because of the character of Anton Ego, the greatest critic in cinema history.
Anton Ego has a pure soul. He is someone who cares only and exclusively about art (in this case cookery). He knows what is good and suffers enormously from what is bad. This is close to what I mean by “critical sense”, that the critic knows, deeply knows, the difference between what is good and what is not and is emotionally affected by it.
Anton Ego’s opinion about food is learned and uncompromising. He cannot be bribed, threatened, or cajoled into changing that opinion, which he delivers with style. For that reason, he seems villainous, for only a villain could have this level of consistency and artistic purity, only a villain could have such uncompromising standards. But, Anton Ego is not a villain, nor is he a snob. He is, like all great critics, a troubled romantic; in love with the art, but disappointed in the artists.
At the climax of the movie, when Ego finally encounters art worthy of his critical talent, he is humbled and his final review—simple, direct and brilliantly written— is acknowledgement that criticism always ranks below art, and that talent can come from anywhere. The art, the food, is so important to Ego that he is untroubled by the identity of the artist, and his honesty as a critic compels him to praise the cooking of a sewer rat. And, in the final scene, we learn that Ego is professionally ruined for it. He loses his job and reputation because he had written a positive review of a rat-infested restaurant.
That’s the ideal critic. A person totally committed to both the truth and his own unerring judgement of merit. Yet, despite his own impressive talent, that ideal critic willingly, joyfully, deploys that talent in praise of a greater talent, a more worthy art, and knows his position within the hierarchy of artistic merit. Remy the rat chef is the greater artist, Anton Ego is the greater man.
In fact, Anton Ego is probably the greatest character in any Pixar movie, if not the greatest character in any movie of the last two decades, by which I mean he is a singular character with a singular greatness of soul.
Obviously, not even the best real life critic can approach Anton Ego’s level of purity and honesty. Anton Ego is, after all, a fictional character. But, the best critics are motivated by love of the art they criticize, and hope to honestly educate others about the pitfalls and potential greatness of that art. They should also be able to write well. This is why I believe everyone is free to have an opinion, but that not everyone should be a restaurant critic.
P.S. Here’s a short podcast with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott talking about the importance of Anton Ego.
Monday Miscellany: Quick Takes.
Here’s some extra reading for your weekday amusement.
Detroit-Style Pizza, A Motor City Standout: A great short history of Detroit-Style Pizza from Smart Mouth, a very smart food history site.
Duck Tales: A short history of Peking Duck from Foodistory, another very good food history site.
I also highly recommend this book…
The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World written by my friend, Virginia Postrel. As with all of Virginia’s books, it’s remarkably well-written and entertaining and the topic is surprisingly interesting.
See you on Thursday!