John

Rediscovering The Art of Criticism from AA Gill

In magazines, Personal on November 22, 2008 at 6:47 pm

criticism

When I first started out writing for KLue, I was always excited about doing movie reviews. It may seem like a throwaway assignment; who needs ’em when you got the RottenTomatoes gauge? In many publications, reviews can be seen as the pits–training grounds where rookies start off, because what can be more uncomplicated about giving a rundown and a verdict of good, okay, and two thumbs down to whatever the subject is? 

But if all reviews were boiled down to a number (or thumbs), there’d be no point to writing one anyway. From the way many reviews are written in local papers and magazines, you can feel the writer’s mind dragging on as he/she plods to the inevitable verdict. It’s an unenthusiastic formula, and when stretched to a full 1000-word essay, I can sympathise with readers who want to skip to the end. 

All too often, reviews are peppered with adjectives disguising themselves as opinions — the movie was “good, spectacular, awesome, chilling, thrilling, funny, etc.” In food reviews, the dish can be “homely, quaint, mediocre, excellent, pleasant, imaginative,” while the decor can be “homely, quaint, mediocre, excellent, pleasant, imaginative…” you get the idea. No wonder we’re desperate to reach the final line: It’s like looking to an upper-management executive for constructive feedback.  

I found myself laughing when I came across a bot-generated (its name was “kitchen appliances”, so yes, it was a bot) comment on KLue’s restaurant review of Michaelangelo’s: “I tried this restaurant for the first time and although the food was pretty good, the service needs some work. The decor was great though.” Scarily, that automated comment sums up about half the reviews I’ve ever read in local papers and magazines. 

I’ve recently rediscovered my love for the art of critical writing after reading A. A. Gill’s Table Talk, a compilation of restaurant reviews by the British journalist. Yes, you read right–food reviews. In England. It’s hard to imagine anything less relevant and intriguing, but in his hands you get a treasure trove of not just reviews, but an insight into culture, history, and why people who choose to be vegetarians are nuts (and oats). 

Here’s an excerpt of his foreword, which sums up much of what I’m banging on about: 

For most people, the enjoyment is enough; pleasure doesn’t need explaining. If you ask why they liked the play, the soup, the view, they’ll probably use all-encompassing, evocative words of emotion or volume–it was ‘great’, ‘terrific’, ‘amazing’, ‘good’, ‘very good.’ Press them, and more than likely they’ll describe what they’ve seen, done, eaten. Analysing why something was moving or entertaining or funny, or wasn’t, doesn’t improve it. 

I can’t write ‘moist’, ‘succulent’, or ‘luxuriant’ without shivering. Writing about food and the sensation of eating can be as nauseating as watching someone eat with their mouth open. […] I’m constantly fascinated by why and how we eat. The movement of ingredients, the history, anthropology, mythology, manners, and rituals of food. Dinner is a defining human occasion. We are the only species that ever existed that offers hospitality. (Emphasis mine.)

What is the role of the critic?

The problem with modern critics–be it a motoring, football, food, movies–is that they don’t go further than the casual table talk. Read any good reviewer, however and you’ll see that they grasp one common concept: a review is more than just the subject. It’s about the history, anthropology, mythology of a place. Take this excerpt of his review of Starbucks, from the second paragraph:

An American cafe sounds like the punchline to one of those jokes in which the Germans end up the lovers, the Italians the soldiers, the French marriage counsellors and the Greeks the cooks, architects, or hairdressers. Asking Americans to make coffee is like asking them to draw a map of the world. 

“Okay, so this is your house, that’s Disneyland, and what’s this squiggle over here? Right, that’s everywhere else.” American coffee is only coffee because they say it is. It’s actually a pale, scalding infusion of junior-school jam-jar brush water. Americans who drink one a week imagine they’re in the grip of a vicious coffee frenzy that prohibits them from signing legal documents, operating heavy machinery and adopting children…

How can anyone sell this stuff? How can anyone buy this twice? And this was only a small one–a baby. The addult version must be like sucking the outlet of a nuclear power station. 

Those few sentences encapsulate what reviews should be–critical, sharp, and backed by the reviewer’s understanding (right or not) of the culture that produced it. Top critics understand that their subject is the creation of a country’s social structure, culture and history, all landing in the form of a dinner, car, book, or movie. What does a BMW say about Germans? What does The Office say about British humour?

That’s why Jeremy Clarkson spends half his review yammering on about the Yorkshire countryside before reviewing a Ferrari, AA Gill writes two pages of the cultural implications of growing rice vs. wheat before reviewing a rice pudding shop; why New Yorker’s Anthony Lane starts off his review of Star Wars: Episode III not with the plot, but the linguistic history of one word: “Sith. What kind of a word is that? Sith. It sounds to me like the noise that emerges when you block one nostril and blow through the other, but to George Lucas it is a name that trumpets evil.”

Going back to my early days at KLue, I realise why I loved writing reviews. Not that it was a simple job–I used to take more than a day to write a decent review–but I loved “getting” a movie, trying to understand the heart of why it was made, uncovering the magic of how a movie scoots us away from reality in darkened cinema halls. Of course, I never reached the heights of Anthony Lane’s 2000-word reviews, but I always tried to see things from his point within the constraints of a 400-word limit. 

Good writing is not an impossible task, but to achieve that, it takes hours of learning, writing, and reading from the best. I’m far, far away from any of these legends, myself, so I’m constantly learning too. The takeaway? Ditch the adjectives, don’t focus on the subject, but look beyond it. In the words of Neo: “There is no spoon.”

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