Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Critical Thinking

Speaking of restaurant reviews, I think it's worth revisiting this gem from a Nashua newspaper. I've kept it because it's possibly the worst review I've ever read, and the best example of why many are bad.
Michael Timothy's, 212 Main St., Nashua; 595-9334. This is it, the Nashua restaurant where more people have eaten the best meal of their lives than any other. Chef/owners Michael and Sarah Buckley continue to pack them in for some of the finest food and service anywhere in southern New Hampshire. If you can't find a parking space on Main Street, this is the main reason why.
Translation: "Michael Timothy's is good."

Now contrast that with some alternatives the author might have written.
  • Michael Timothy's is an Italian bistro.
  • Michael Timothy's is a sushi bar.
  • Michael Timothy's is a greasy-spoon diner.
Read the review again. Do you know anything about Michael Timothy's, other than it's popular? Do you know what sort of cuisine they prepare, or whether they serve wine? Do you have a sense of the atmosphere, whether you'll look foolish wearing a suit or whether you'll be turned away for wearing dungarees? Do you know whether they serve lunch, dinner, or both?

I often criticize bad writing, but that's not the problem here. The author seems to know how to put together a sentence, so kudos to Hippo Press for hiring a literate writer. But he fails the test for critical thinking. Every putz who walks out of a restaurant knows whether or not he liked his meal. If you're going to write about it, you need to take the next step: Why did you like your meal? Tell us what you had and why it was good. Tell us about the service. Tell us how much you paid. When I'm finished reading, I should have some idea what I might experience at that restaurant and whether it's for me.

The last sentence (about parking on Main Street) is also key. Having been a writer for more than a couple years, I recognize exactly what I'm looking at when I reach that sentence: He's trying to fill space, and he's trying to sound clever. Neither is a laudable goal. If he'd put some thought into the piece, he wouldn't have needed the first; and no critic should ever, ever, ever aim for the second.

Critics tend to have flunked out of the field they're writing about. I don't point that out to be nasty, but to explain why most criticism fails: They're still trying to entertain. They're accustomed to the spotlight and they don't know how to shift gears. The job of an actor or a musician is to entertain the audience, but the purpose of art criticism is something else entirely; and when you put an entertainer into that chair, they often miss the distinction.

Readers shouldn't finish a critic's column and exclaim, "Wow, I really loved reading that prose." They should say, "That was helpful." Critics should emulate Murrow, not Dickens.


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