Having explored some initial thoughts about food blogging last week, I’d like to turn now to Robert Siestma’s thoughts about food writing as “criticism.” Towards the end of his piece in the Columbia Review of Journalism, Siestma quotes the film critic Richard Schickel in the New York Times,
“Criticism – and it’s humble cousin, reviewing – is not a democratic activity. It is, or should be, an elite enterprise, ideally undertaken by individuals who bring something to the party beyond their hasty, instinctive opinions … It is work that requires disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author’s (or filmakers’s or painter’s) entire body of work, among other qualities.”
A common fallacy is to suggest that such writing can only arise from the ranks of paid professional writers. Very little contemporary and popular food writing exhibits this kind of craft. Where we find exceptions, it tends to be either in specialised fields (wine-writing, food ethnography), or with authors whose skill is such that their writing is not dependent on food being the subject (e.g., A.A. Gill, Vir Sanghavi).
One of the most powerful ideas in Siestma’s argument is that reviewing and criticism should function as a public service. That sense of “public service” can be connected to the following broad categories in food writing and restaurant reviews,
a) reviews of the kind of restaurant experience I could have as a patron
b) critical commentary from a well informed writer
c) great writing
Great writing – truly literary writing – is a public service that elevates our sense of what everyday things like cooking and eating mean to human experience. Literature is transformative. That said, we need to honest; the bulk of food journalism and blogging is less than literary (yes, as much as 99% so).
Critics and Criticism
Critical commentary is the voice of the expert, schooled and the experienced writer who can discern what is going on in a restaurant or food trend and draw our attention to it. On this level, some of my favourite food bloggers draw their insight not from journalism or training as writers, but from the experience of working in the food industry.
This where critics of blogging frequently get it wrong. Just because a blogger is not a journalist does not mean that they don’t bring professional training and experience to the topics they write about. There are great music bloggers who are not music journalists, but musicians, music educators and music marketers. There are fantastic blogs about religion from people who are not religious correspondents, but priests, theologians and professors.
The following diagram suggests two possible routes for food writing that functions as a public service – regardless of whether the writer is a paid professional or not.
On one side, we have reviews based on normal dining experiences. Here, what matters is fidelity to the experience itself – the good, the bad and the ugly. I firmly believe anyone can write this kind of review, since in normal life we rely on such comments from friends and family who may or may not be expert in the business of food. The restaurant patron who pays their own way, on a normal night, is going to have an experience much closer to what you or I might have than someone enjoying a free meal at a PR event.
On the other side, we have critical commentary – of the kind that clarifies and educates. Here things get a little muddier.
As I mentioned last week I see great food writing in some journals, like the New York Times and New York magazine, but closer to home the quality drops dramatically. There are some really informed food bloggers out there, but that is rare and I don’t see many food bloggers from outside the food industry choosing to educate themselves with serious reading or professional courses.
[tags] Journalism, Food Writing, Criticism [/tags]