It’s probably not going to come as a great surprise to anyone who knows me that I want to be Dorothy Parker. Not now obviously. I don’t imagine that being dead supplies more glamorous excitement and fun than even my dullest of rainy Monday afternoons. What I mean is that she is definitely one of the writers I admire the most and should most like to emulate.
Amongst many of her laudable achievements, she wrote what I think are some of the best and wittiest reviews I have ever read. I think it’s fairly safe to summarise that all too often the literary merit of her reviews far outweighed those of the works she was critiquing such as this review of an etiquette book.
I often fantasise about becoming a skilful and acerbic reviewer. I dream about one day writing for The New Yorker just as Dorothy did, although admittedly I have as much chance of that happening as convincing anyone other than myself that I embody Parker-esque sophistication when I order a toffee-apple martini. Ms Parker was a renowned devotee of the martini, but I doubt that sipping away on a cocktail that tastes like a kid’s sweetie with vodka buys you instant glamour and mystique.
No, the trouble is that I suspect I’m just not cut out to be a reviewer.
The tradition of the brilliantly written review is one that I think has continued since the hey-day of the marvellously witty Dorothy Parker. I, for one, love reading reviews. Many of them are fantastically humorous, especially, it seems, when they are savagely scathing in their assessment. I often find that I will happily read a whole Empire magazine or various reviewers online, even if I know that the films or books are ones that I have no intention of viewing or reading. The review itself is the entertainment.
Of course, there are many reviews which aren’t particularly witty or insightful. Merely ripping into the work of someone else with heavy sarcasm doesn’t not guarantee a clever or amusing review. Still, it remains that a well-crafted review is an enjoyable read, regardless of my own attitude towards the subject matter.
However, all this does make me ponder the true purpose of a review. Is it to inform the reader of the considered analysis of the reviewer, and make a well-reasoned recommendation as to whether the text in question is worth the reader’s own time? Or is it to showcase the reviewer’s knowledge about the subject material and provide entertainment, more often than not at the expense of the work reviewed and the people involved in its creation?
I imagine the reviews are doing both simultaneously, but that’s sort of where I start to feel a little uncomfortable with the whole concept. I’m not sure that I like the idea of reviewing being an opportunity to show-off by ripping into something that other people have poured a great deal of time and effort into. I don’t think anyone would set out to make a deliberately bad film or book or TV show. Probably most things are, at their inception anyway, a labour of love for their creators. And even the most commercially-driven, derivative Hollywood blockbuster where nobody involved even vaguely considered they were making ‘art’ for a nanosecond still took a lot of people a lot of time to make. Probably not the writers in many cases. There are many films where you suspect the whole screenplay just sort of arose out of a drunken weekend in front of a laptop and no one could be bothered to tidy up the enormous plot holes and sloppy characterisation afterwards. Still, even in these cases, a heck of a lot of people had to work very hard to make the film. An entire cast and crew dragged themselves away from their friends and loved ones to some far-off location for months where, if behind-the-scenes features on DVDs are to be believed, they were forced to work long hours the likes of which you wouldn’t otherwise hear of outside of Victorian workhouses.
If I see a lousy film, I can’t muster up the energy to get that irate over it. The whole thing just fills me with pity. A bunch of people went to a lot of trouble and probably had to endure a lot of unpleasantness to make something that’s a bit crud. That’s heart-breaking, really. Such a waste of time, effort and money. So many better things could have been done with those resources. I understand suffering for art, but suffering for mediocrity is just hopelessly tragic.
Sure, a lot of Hollywood types are tremendously overpaid, but they have get up really early. Frankly, I can’t believe that any amount of money makes up for the misery of living in a trailer and waking up in the lonely pitch black of pre-dawn hours day after day. Maybe I’ve just never had enough money to understand the immense attraction of becoming obscenely rich, but I’m inclined to suspect that it’s not worth that much effort. I mean some of these film types claim to work 16 hours a day. Doesn’t that kill you after a week or two? It must have some impact on life expectancy. I suspect we shouldn’t be so surprised that every so often a Hollywood starlet dies of unexplained causes. If they are really working these hours, we should be more bewildered that any of them are still alive.
Books are even worse. I can’t muster up any feelings of antagonism or contempt for them. Frankly, after discovering the enormity of the work that goes into writing novels, I find it almost impossible to say anything mean about one, especially not one that has made it through the arduous publication process. Even if I don’t enjoy a book that’s my own opinion, and I feel perfectly valid and comfortable in maintaining that opinion. I’m rather fond of my own opinions, in fact I personally consider them far more worthwhile than anyone else’s, but I don’t expect that anyone else should share my high opinion of my opinions. They have their own opinion to hold up as the sole beacon of reason and judgement in a hazy, poorly-lit world. However, the fact remains that merely by being published means that my poor opinion of the book is already outnumbered. Not only would the writer justifiably take issue with my not enjoying their book, but their agent, their editors, their critiquing friends and numerous other professionals in the publishing world have all put the weight of their professional judgement behind this book being the sort of book that people of sound mind and taste should probably enjoy reading.
Who am I to argue with them? For that matter, do I even want to? Surely, the best and only sensible course of action having been disappointed to have wasted hours in the reading of an unenjoyable book is to try to find a better one to take my mind of things. I fail to see how I would be better off by committing more of my own valuable time, lamenting the fact that I did not like reading it as much as I had hoped I would.
Largely, though I suspect my real issue with writing reviews is the unnerving ambivalence I feel over anyone else’s achievements. Whenever something has been successfully produced – a film, a book or even a meal prepared at a restaurant – it’s generally the result of a commendable degree of talent and hard work. I admire their skills and their dedication. At times I might feel envious of their abilities and accomplishments, but mostly, I feel happy that they’re the ones who did all the hard work and I just get to enjoy it.
I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and a little smugness, that I live in a privileged time and place in society where I can happily indulge in the very great pleasure of reading books, watching films and eating in restaurants. It’s all a tremendous wonderful arrangement from my point of view. At a relatively inexpensive cost, I can be whisked away to another imaginary world of adventure and excitement from the warmth and comfort of a nice chair, or I can go out and sit around having a nice little chat with my dinner companions whilst other people run around, preparing food that is far more delicious than anything I could cook for myself and then bring it out to me. I don’t even have to stand up to obtain the scrumptious meal of steak or pasta filled dreams.
Even if a meal is a little disappointing, I wasn’t the one being yelled at in a hot kitchen by a Gordon Ramsay style tyrant on a Friday night. I was the lucky one who just sat around with nothing more stressful to do than select what I wished to eat from a menu. If a movie is a little dull, the worst I’ve had to suffer is sitting in a cozy theatre for a couple of hours, feeling bored while I munched popcorn. Actors and stunt performers, however, may have really been put through the ringer to make the wretched movie. As the diner or audience, it’s hard to come out feeling like I’m the one who suffered from the whole deal, no matter how poor the quality of the food or film.
The whole set-up is one I am immensely fond of and I find it hard to feel that aggrieved with anything that isn’t earth-shatteringly bad. I’ve almost never been disappointed at a restaurant, and frankly, I’m more likely to get upset over a long wait for food than a slightly over-done fillet mignon. And the truth is that most books and films are fine. Perfectly adequate ranging through to the rather enjoyable. There aren’t that many fill you with righteous indignation or bitter disappointment, but there aren’t many that have a profound impact on your life either.
This is really my main problem with reviews. It seems to be a form of writing that favours writers that have strong emotional responses to the source material. Colourful reviews tend to be ones that border of evangelical levels of praise and admiration, or, more often, pile on the scorn and derision with biting cynicism and scathing vitriol. For me, almost no books, films, foods, TV shows, and, perhaps rather more dispiritingly, life experiences, have ever managed to cruelly dash or passionately surpass my expectations. Almost everything turns out vaguely to be more-or-less how I though it probably would be. One of the life’s least poetic truths is that after a while you pretty much get a feel for what most things are going to be like, and then that’s basically how they turn out. Most things are fine - not unbelievably fantastic, but not entirely bad either.
Possibly my palate, both in the literal sense of my ability to taste and distinguish between foods, but also my figurative palate for detecting subtleties in art and literature, is just not refined enough. Maybe others are capable of discriminating between a dazzling myriad of differing levels of adequacy. Possibly there is a tremendous variety in types of ‘basically fine, but not great’ to be moved by. Maybe some people have such refined taste and judgement that they can be so vehemently offended by films that are a bit slow in places that their troubled souls can only be assuaged by hours of frantically typing out scornful words of uncompromising reproach. Maybe others have passionate hearts that are so enraptured by a well-made tiramisu that thinking up bounteous hyperbolic expressions and flowery superlatives to describe the captivating desserty delights it bestowed is all they can think of for days.
I, sadly, seem to lack the capacity for such violent extremes. Sadly, I fear there is just not a place in the world for a reviewer who would sum up most movies as ‘like the trailer, only longer’ and would provide insights into restaurants would seldom venture beyond ‘their lasagne tastes pleasing like lasagne that I didn’t have to make’ or ‘I enjoyed a chicken madras that was a resounding success in that it was decidedly madras-like in flavour, a quality perhaps only further enhanced by judicious addition of chicken’.