Why do people love a bad review?
Jay Rayner is a master of the dark art, but has been on the receiving end of a savaging, too. He talks to a psychologist, a chef and one of his own critics to find out why everybody, except the victim, drools when the knife goes in
By Jay Rayner
The Observer, Sunday 27 May 2012
Forget what your mum always told you. Sometimes it pays to be horrid. That, at least, was the message I received when I switched on my computer on Sunday 19 February. This magazine had just published my review of Novikov, a huge, Russian-owned gastro-complex in London's Mayfair, and even before lunchtime the link had been tweeted many more times than the previous week's review of an American barbecue joint called Pitt Cue. That was tweeted out 44 times. The Novikov review would go on to be tweeted 500 times. The review was viewed by three times as many people and shared on Facebook by twice as many. In Moscow it was discussed on television, radio and in the press.
The difference? I liked Pitt Cue. I loved their ribs and the vibe and the pricing. Novikov? Not so much. I hated it. I hated almost everything about it, from the fetid concept to the gilded, tucked, colonically irrigated clientele to the sweaty faux Italian food which tasted like "cheap Chinese". My review concluded that the cooking is "so cack-handed, so foul, so astoundingly grim you want to congratulate the kitchen on its incompetence." It was disdain and fury in 780 forensically chosen words.
The standard narrative now demands that I confess a baffled kind of wonderment that such a hostile take-down should prove so popular. But like Novikov itself, that, too, would be total cobblers. I had known it would be one of my most-read reviews. For if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. They stop me in the street, send me emails, hand-write me letters telling me so.
It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. My Dining Hell is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It's simply because there is an appetite for take-downs. Believe me, nobody would want to read a bunch of my positive appraisals. But give them write-ups which compare the food to faecal matter, the decor to an S&M chamber and the service to something the staff of a Russian gulag would reject for being too severe, and then readers are interested. The question is: why? What is it about negative reviews that gets people going? What effect does it have on those reviewed? And how do those responsible for sticking the knife in feel about what they do?
The psychologist and author Oliver James tells me that, to understand their appeal, we must look to what's called "social-comparison theory". He says we have "a natural tendency to compare ourselves with other people in order to learn how to perform better and improve our self-esteem". We can compare both upwards and downwards, but "comparing upwards is dangerous because it can make you feel inadequate". If, however, you compare down, that can have positive outcomes. "We want to hear about bad things happening to other people," James says, "because it makes us feel better about ourselves." I like this theory, because it suggests I am performing a greater service for the readers than just telling them where not to eat. I am literally brightening their day.
But someone has to suffer to make that happen. On 30 November 2003 that person was Jamie Barber, one of the restaurateurs behind a new restaurant in London called Shumi, which was sold as a fusion of Japanese and Italian. Or, as I called it in the review, "one of the most irritating restaurants in London dining history". Barber, who, since Shumi's closure, has gone on to run a number of successful businesses, still remembers that review. "How could I forget?" he says. "As a restaurateur you put your heart and soul, not to mention your money, into the venture and then you are just at the mercy of the critics."
So did he think the review was unfair? "Look, we did get some good reviews, too. Yours, though, was by far the worst." I am almost minded to thank him. "But it did actually make me laugh." Well that's reassuring. "I would have preferred a good review. Then again a negative review can uncover something about the business that you might not see from being so close up." He says my review did that uncovered certain things that looked pretentious. He admits, though, that after the experience he has stopped courting the restaurant critics. "It's like the movies. There are some movies the critics love but which do no business. And then there are the blockbusters the critics hate, and they do big box office." In short, we may not be as important as we like to think we are.
Still, reviews do WOUND, as well I know. In April 2008 the Telegraph published a review by the novelist Nicholas Blincoe of my book The Man Who Ate The World a food travelogue. It began with the line: "If The Man Who Ate The World was a dinner it would be the dog's," and went downhill from there. He used the review as a bit of Freudian analysis, described me as being in a state of "abject panic" about my lifestyle choices, pulled apart my relationship with my mother and suggested the 100,000-word tome was merely one long cry for help. It was masterful and, of course, wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The book is a work of genius.
How did I feel? I didn't like it, but I've long thought that being able to make a living by writing is a privilege and therefore if you have the arrogance to shove your thoughts out there you have to be prepared for what people might say. It doesn't mean you have to agree. (Not everybody is so sanguine. The 19th-century German composer Max Reger allegedly once replied to a bad review with a note that read: "I am seated in the smallest room in the house. Your review is before me. Shortly it will be behind me.")
When I approach Blincoe for an interview he is wary. He wonders if I will stitch him up. I'm intrigued as to why he's so concerned. Well, he says, it remains the most savage review he has ever written. Did he worry about how I might respond? "I didn't think it would cause you emotional distress," he says. "Like anybody who enjoys writing for a living there's that weakness of wanting to get up on your hind legs and have your say." But, he says, "Critics are absolutely necessary. They've got to give a truthful assessment. You have always got to be accurate. And after that it's about building in the theatrics and drama." Does he, in retrospect, think his review of my book is fair? "Yes, I do. I identified its weaknesses." (He's wrong.)
Earlier this year the reviews website The Omnivore awarded the first Hatchet Job of The Year trophy, for the most skilful piece of negative literary criticism. It went to Adam Mars-Jones, for his Guardian review of Michael Cunningham's novel, By Nightfall. Journalist and former literary editor Sam Leith, who published Blincoe's review of my book (bastard), was one of the judges. "It's very easy to get carried away when being negative," Leith says, "and we didn't want simply to reward vituperation. To write a bad review which is entertaining and fair, which tells you what the book is trying to deliver and why it fails to do so, is very hard. What makes a bad review really swing is when it's fair-minded."
That, Leith says, was what was so compelling about Mars-Jones's review. I ask the winning critic if he gets pleasure from writing a bad review and Mars-Jones denies it. "No, not at all. Anybody who writes a novel to the point of publication deserves a basic respect."
My so-called rival at the Sunday Times, AA Gill, has been reviewing restaurants for nearly 20 years. He once compared the hot pot at a Sichuan restaurant to "the bucket under a field-hospital operating table" and said the cooking at Pearl was "technically called 'fussy old bitch queen pursed-lip plate fiddles'". Unlike many others including me he denies that writing negative reviews is easier than writing positive reviews. "Writing is never easy," he says. "I know there are only so many meals left to me in life so I never set out purposefully to have a bad meal." Does he ever worry about the impact on the restaurants of a negative review? "No. I do not take credit for any extra bookings that follow a good review nor do I take responsibility. I am only writing for the readers."
Giles Coren, who does the job for the Times, and who has just published his own book about restaurants, How To Eat Out, probably dreams of having Gill's emotional carapace. "When I write I just want to be funny and to be liked. I want people to listen to me and think that Giles is a nice guy." Well you're not really in the right job then, are you? "I know. I sometimes feel like a hit man who's been hired to kill a bad man's daughter and who knows it's a terrible thing to do but who has to do it anyway." So does he agonise? "All the time especially between the review being filed and publication." Recently he reviewed Tom Aikens's newly revamped restaurant, said it was like "a terrible motorway pile-up" and that the waiters were dressed in outfits he could only call "Bavarian rapist". He knows that Aikens, a chef he admires, was upset by it. "As writers we are meant to empathise with the human condition. And yet we write something that we know will make a fellow human being very unhappy. It's heart breaking." It should be said that Coren has talked publicly about being in Jungian therapy for years. He should probably carry on with that.
As to me, I cannot deny that writing a negative review is easier because bad experiences are simply funnier, the vocabulary of the awful much wider. Even so I rarely if ever seek them out. I don't have to, given how often they happen to me. But I am also a consumer of bad reviews. If they are fun to write they are also fun to read like this one by a young rising politician called Winston Churchill. Asked about his dinner the night before, he replied: "It would have been splendid… if the wine had been as cold as the soup, the beef as rare as the service, the brandy as old as the fish, and the maid as willing as the duchess."
God, but I wish I'd written that.
Harvested in 2012 from the url: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2012/may/27/bad-critical-reviews-jay-rayner/print for "A Collection of Essays on Art" by Michael B. Chang http://www.michaelchang.dk/04_words/workwords/on_art.html#_references