Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Review

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ian Port, Late of the SF Weekly, Sums Up the Local Scene, Leaves Town

 He tells me many things I didn't know.

Before the internet, "national culture" largely meant whatever was happening in L.A. or New York, or whatever those cities were obsessed with. If a regional act didn't sell enough records or play enough good shows to be deemed important by the people there, it had a diminished voice. Its sounds and biography and lifestyle didn't enter the larger consciousness, or at least didn't enter it through the front door. And I think that's really why music fans express happiness about a local band or local event making it: It means that the ideas, lifestyles, and politics of a place, reflected in this creative work, are influencing the way people elsewhere live and think.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My 'Smart' Restaurant Review

English: Times Square
English: Times Square (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm saying this review cum feature story is smart because it raises the possibility a bad review might help a restaurant just as a good review by a powerful critic can ruin one. (According to Michael Bauer, a small restaurant that receives a strong review can be overwhelmed by a flood of customers it is not ready to handle.)

When I read the New York Times’ hilariously smart-mouthed review of Guy Fieri’s new Times Square restaurant, Guy’s American Kitchen and Bar, I couldn’t believe that a culinary experience could be so spectacularly frightful. Was the food really as “limp” and “oil-sogged” as the critic Pete Wells claimed? Did the drinks really taste like “a combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde”? Did Fieri’s spiky, bleached hair and Pauly Shore-turned-youth pastor personality inspire so much ire in the Gray Lady’s reviewer that he could no longer separate the man from his food? Surely this place can’t be worse than your average TGI Friday’s. Or could it? I had to find out.
I wasn’t alone. Wells’s review was so popular—it’s the most read story on the Times’ website this month and it generated so much controversy that Fieri had to defend his reputation on the Today show—that the restaurant has started drawing a crowd. Of locals.

P.S. Remember I talked about how a writer might include a word that she thinks most readers won't know, flattering the handful who do and educating the mass who don't. I rather like this technique, though if  I stumble over two, three, four words I am not familiar with - no, I don't like that very much. Our lesson for today is "review cum feature story."

P.P.S. My friend Mason Monroe, who has cooked for a living at various times in his life and who cooks very well, writes to say the idea "about a rave capsizing a small place is bullshit." 

Irony is a Useful Tool. Here a Cartoonist Explains Her Ironic Intent

(Click to enlarge)
A pre-emptive alert for the satire-challenged: this strip is obviously not endorsing violence against bankers. It is saying that many in the financial world are real thugs who are never treated the way police often treat black citizens in Ferguson and many other places. The devastation caused by white-collar criminals — the loss of so many people’s homes and life savings, leading to broken families, poor health, depression, and suicide, has caused suffering on an immense scale. Yet bankers have to try very, very hard to get themselves arrested, and even then they usually aren’t successful.
With this cartoon, I am also trying to show just how annoying and unreasonable Ferguson cops must seem to people who live there.

Robertson: Part of the charm of irony is that if you, as reader, "get it," you feel superior to the poor schlubs who don't get it. Among other things, it's a way of creating a sense of community among your readers. It presupposes that you understand what your readers know and don't know and have a sense of their worldview.
The rhetorician Wayne C. Booth has written at length about irony. (Full disclosure: My doctoral dissertation used one of his insights as its organizing principle.) Here's a summary of one of his basic points. (For a fuller discussion of Booth's notion of "stable" irony, look here.)

Four steps to reconstruction:
  1. Reader must reject the literal meaning – recognize a dissonance between what he reads and what he knows
  2. Reader must try out alternative interpretations – eg that guy must be crazy
  3. Reader makes a decision about the author’s knowledge or beliefs
  4. Reader chooses a new meaning based on his beliefs about the author
This process is communal: “The whole thing cannot work at all unless both parties to the exchange have confidence that they are moving together in identified patterns” (13). Booth even claims that real intimacy is impossible without irony (is he being ironic?) (15).

Stable Irony and Satire
  • important to Booth – irony must always have victims, but “the building of amiable communities is often far more important than the exclusion of naïve victims” (28)
  • the reader feels included because the author doesn’t have to spell out what he/she is saying
  • irony is directed to affirmative matters – creates a community of believers even as it excludes (28)
  • “irony is used in some satire, not in all; some irony is satiric, much is not” (29)

P.S. Yeah, this is me, all right: Socratic irony: A stance assumed by a teacher who pretends to be ignorant in order to make his or her students think.  (See any of Plato’s Socratic dialogues.)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Snark: I Sneer, Therefore I Am

Here's a summary of David Denby's book on the topic from Huffington Post:

Denby attempts to give snark both its due in history and a proper definition. He gives two historical examples: revenge-minded classical poets like Juvenal, and recent smirking-society magazines like Private Eye and Spy. He identifies (and rips) two main snarkers by name: Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd, to whom he dedicates the penultimate chapter, a woman whose political poison pen is betrayed by what he describes as an utter failure to believe in, or advocate, any actual kind of policy. A satirist has to believe in something in order to satirize: things couldn't be so bad as to deserve satire unless the satirist had conviction that they ought to be much better. Snark is usually agnostic. It believes in nothing other than the worthlessness of its target.

Related articles

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Checklist for the Restaurant Review

1)    Do NOT write your review in chronological order. That is, don’t begin with a bland description of the outside of the restaurant or of the hostess taking you to your table. Begin with your most striking idea from the whole review somewhere in the first three sentences. Almost certainly that won’t be the first thing that happens during your visit. That doesn’t mean you can’t begin with a vivid description of the interior – of the cleanliness of the bathroom or the waiter's complexion or the conversation of the couple at the next table, which you will have taken the time to study - if those details support connect with your main point, if it goes somewhere. 

“Support” is an elusive concept, so I struck it through. “Connect” is better. After beginning with a positive statement (with examples), you might include detail on something you didn’t like. The contradiction is the connection. Or after praising the food, you might – without an explicit transition – begin talking about decor, which would be a natural progression as you unpack the whole experience. But I’d like some connective tissue, something at the end of that section like, “But the food is star, not the lime-green wallpaper.” Some writing coaches advise you to stay on course by putting in “scaffolding” – explicit, even heavy-handed transitions, which you remove in the final draft: “I have been writing about the food. Waiters bring food. It is logical for me to talk about the waiter at this point.”

Still, if your lead puts a stake in the ground – that is, makes a strong point – you probably won’t have much trouble playing off that initial point of view in the rest of the review. Here’s an emphatic student lead that I liked from a couple years ago:

At first impression, you might think you’d walked into a glorified soup kitchen, which isn’t half wrong. Tommy’s Joynt doesn’t have any menus or servers, and there’s a sign above a barrel of pickles that reads, “Enjoy the pickles. But please only take what you can eat – when you buy something.” The walls are covered with old beer signs, paintings of horses, and any other kind of memorabilia that has been stuck up since 1947. Yet all these distractions fade when hungry customers lay their eyes on Tommy’s meat.

Tommy’s is a meat market. People line up, look at the wall of meat options, and watch as a guy with a giant knife cuts healthy portions of all types of meat onto a plate. There’s bratwurst, knackwurst, lasagna, spaghetti with meatballs, buffalo stew, and of course the bbq turkey sloppy joe. You feel like you’re in a 1950’s school cafeteria. All meals are served on a tray with options of rice, mashed potatoes, beans, and any other side that can be scooped out of a metal tub.

2) At the end, list the basic consumer info: address, telephone number, hours of operation, reservation policy, price range, credit card policy, dress code (if any), noise level and so on.

3) Give me some sort of grading scale and use it to evaluate the restaurant. From another student, here’s consumer information – with additional information interpolated - plus a rating scale.

Out of 4 (Chili Peppers wearing Sombreros)
El Toreador:
50 West Portal Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94127
Credit Cards: All major
Entrees: $8.75-14.95
Drinks: (Beers and margaritas are about $4.00- a little pricey)
Atmosphere: If you go early (around 4:30 pm for dinner), you can hear your conversation.  After 5:30 pm, forget about it.
Service: Friendly, but a little prompt.  Dishes came faster than I could eat them.

4) Tell me how much your meal costs item by item.

5) In a note at the end, tell me who your audience is even if you think only an idiot couldn’t figure it out.

6) For Wednesday bring a restaurant review to class that you think has something "smart" in it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The 50 dorkiest songs you secretly love

The 50 dorkiest songs you secretly love

Friday, August 22, 2014

Last Year's 19 Most Scathing Restaurant Reviews

Tank with liquid nitrogen.
Tank with liquid nitrogen. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
No, tell me what you really think.

I must meet this Anna Roth of SFWeekly, whose lead makes me want to crouch in the weeds until I save up enough for the liposuction:

Michael Chiarello stands in the middle of his new Embarcadero restaurant, Coqueta, pouring liquid nitrogen into the eager hands of a group of well-dressed women at a round corner table. He's as handsome in person as he is on the Food Network, tanned and trim with closely cropped salt-and-pepper hair, and is certainly acting the part of the showman celebrity chef as he makes his flashy version of frozen sangria.
I'm sitting two feet away at a table behind him, but my view of the extravagant display is limited to Chiarello's (admittedly well-toned) backside. All through the meal, the chef returns to the same two or three tables several times — drinking punch with them out of a traditional Spanish pitcher, bringing them little treats from the kitchen, generally having what appears to be a great time — and ignores everyone else. If I'd come to bask in the glow of Chiarello's celebrity, I would have been left out in the cold. And his food here isn't much of a consolation prize.

And what does Michael Bauer of the Chron have to say?

When you see dozens of dazzling pintxos at Coqueta, stuck upright into a board with red-tipped toothpicks, you think you're in Barcelona. The flower baskets hanging from the black street lights outside the paned windows give a hint of Venice. If you look to the right, the Bay Bridge shows you're firmly ensconced in San Francisco.
Then when Michael Chiarello comes out of the kitchen in his chocolate brown chef jacket with the flag of Spain on its sleeve, you might be totally confused about Coqueta.

The Bechdel Test: or Why Old Actors Get the Girl and Old Actresses Get the Facelift

One Hundred Men and a Girl
One Hundred Men and a Girl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Bechdel Test is one of those jokes that keeps on coming true.

[Red cross icon] Fewer than two women in this movie
[Mute icon] There are two or more women in this movie, but they don't talk to each other
[Ties icon] There are two or more women in this movie, but they only talk to each other about a man
[Smiley icon] There are two or more women in this movie and they talk to each other about something other than a man*

* Please keep in mind that a movie scoring a [Smiley] does not mean it is at all "good" or feminist friendly, just that it passes all tests.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

It's Gold Coins That Keep People Reading, Not Gold Nuggets.

English: Early_20_yens_gold_coin
English: Early_20_yens_gold_coin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I talked in class about putting "gold nuggets" at certain points in your reviews, which nuggets I defined as some sparkling bit of insight or wonderful detail in support of an insight that hooks the reader and also establishes your credibility so that the reader trudges on through the duller parts of your review and, in particular, accepts your generalizations that you don't have the time to support in detail. For example, after a particularly vivid description of the chocolate mousse, you add that, "And since you're sharing, why not try their glorious, gorgeous creme brûlée." The reader understands not everything is worth a geyser of words.

But giving my wife a play-by-play of the first class session, I suddenly recalled that Fry didn't talk about "gold nuggets." He talked about "gold coins," which makes sense since nuggets are raw material and not all that glittery, not in real life.

The Google is a powerful thing. I found Fry's blog, where he specifies what he means by gold coins. I got it partly right.

Crossing boundaries

Human beings make decisions at boundaries in their lives. Patients dying in hospitals tend to die in the first hours of New Year’s Day, or of their birthday. Readers decide whether to keep reading just before boundaries, and they remember what they read on each side. Writers need to frame boundaries so readers read across them, and remember important points.
Where are the boundaries? Between the lead and the first section, between sections, and between the final section and the ending. The material on each side of a boundary is either an ending of a unit, or the beginning of another, and therefore emphatic.
We lure readers across boundaries by clarity, gold coins, cliffhangers, and subheads. Unconsciously, readers are always thinking about stopping, and they jump out when they start to feel stupid or confused, or know enough. If your readers think, “How’d I get here” or “Where’s this going,” they’re about to wave goodbye. As they realize they’re approaching a boundary, their urge to leave increases. So you need to write even clearer just above a boundary, such as a section break.
We can place a “gold coin” just as the readers start to wobble. A gold coin is something that will amuse or delight them, such as a neat quote, clever sentence, interesting character, or amusing anecdote. As readers enjoy the gold coin, they predict there are more to come, and keep reading across the boundary.

Close enough.

A Meal Can Have a Purpose

Chasing a trend. Entertaining a visitor from out of town. Celebrating a culture. Celebrating an anniversary. Cementing a business relationship.

Cementing a non-business relationship.

A Tantalizing Feast

Tom Jones


When You Write Your Leads, Think of Me and Remember...

English: Robie Macauley with Flannery O'Connor...
English: Robie Macauley with Flannery O'Connor at the University of Iowa in 1947. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes, ".... you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” - 

Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Actual Arts Journalism Job

-Jobs Database
Arts Reporter/Assistant Editor
Colorado Public Radio
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Colorado Public Radio seeks an experienced Arts Reporter/Assistant Editor with a solid journalism background to join its Arts Bureau. 

The Arts Reporter/Assistant Editor covers all aspects of Colorado's arts and culture communities and produces content for radio and the online arts hub (text, video, social media, still images etc).

As a member of the CPR Arts Bureau, this individual will deliver work across all three of CPR’s programming services -- News, Classical, and OpenAir.

The position also entails assisting the Arts Editor with editing web- and audio-based content.

Work includes producing in-depth feature stories, blog posts, social media feeds, and live events about culture-related happenings, trends, issues, and ideas.

The goal is to give people a deep understanding of the broad range of arts news, issues and activities around the state. 

Core responsibilities include:
Research, write, report, edit, and voice a wide variety of stories and series for the weekly arts show, morning and afternoon news magazines, and, occasionally, CPR's interview program Colorado Matters. 
Work with the digital news team on re-purposing existing content for the online arts hub.
Collaborate with the Arts Editor and news department on optimal placement of material, i.e. weekly arts show, news magazines, newscasts, and Colorado Matters. 
Provide regular short features on arts stories and on CPR’s two music services. 
Help produce live events related to beat issues, and work as needed with regional partners and other resources to develop content in the subject area. 
Share copy editing responsibilities with the Arts Editor, and potentially fill-in hosting duties on air.
Consult with arts contributors and cultivates sources broadly in the arts community for story ideas and contacts. 
Participate in all assigned fund-raising and outreach activities, on air and off.
Minimum 5 years public radio news experience including a strong understanding of public radio news values and ethics as well as good news judgment.
Demonstrable passion for arts journalism, possess strong interpersonal skills with a team orientation and have the ability to work independently and interdependently to achieve goals. 
Understanding of the national and international arts landscape and the role that the arts play in people’s lives. 
Good organizational skills are a must along with the ability to create lively, in-depth stories for different media (radio, online, live space etc). 
Proficiency with juggling several projects and deadlines at once, attention to detail, meet deadlines and work productively and efficiently in a team environment. 
Excellent written and oral communications skills (including on-air).
Strong interest in cultural journalism; solid journalism credentials and impeccable ethical standards. 
Ability to tell stories and communicate information across multimedia platforms.
Proven editorial skill set, including writing and editing for broadcast and online. 
Ability to work accurately and gracefully under pressure. 
Clear communication skills; can work effectively in a collaborative environment.
How To Apply:
Please send cover letter, resume, work samples (two recent written arts features for web or print plus two recent arts-oriented audio pieces for radio or podcast), and three professional references to, with Arts Reporter/Assistant Editor in the subject line. Competitive salary and benefits. No phone calls or drop-ins please. Colorado Public Radio is an equal opportunity employer and encourages workplace diversity.
Additional Details:
Full Time
May 15, 2014


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