The Death of the Professional Critic in Philadelphia

The all-powerful critics who once told Philadelphians which restaurants to love and which movies to see have been bulldozed by the Internet, where everyone’s opinion counts equally. But do the masses really know what the hell they’re talking about?

Illustration by Matt Chase

Illustration by Matt Chase

When I and my fellow boomers get together in our dad and mom jeans and yak about the good old days when we were growing up, I find myself at a distinct disadvantage. While I share a common cultural heritage with most of my cohort, there is one gaping hole. I never watched a lot of the television shows they watched, because those shows were what my mom called “vulgar.”

The Carol Burnett Show, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies — all were forbidden. The Wonderful World of Disney, Bonanza, Flipper? Allowed. I know that the concept of a parent exercising such bald veto power over Petticoat Junction — or anything on a screen — is unthinkable to contemporary mothers and fathers. I’m not asking for their pity. I’m merely explaining why I grew up imbued with a sense that some items on the cultural table are more worthy than others.

Back then, there were people like my mom everywhere. The Philly Mag I grew up reading had regular columns by critics of film, books, music, food (with restaurant reviews that regularly ran for 10 columns). Every magazine and newspaper did. We sat and patiently waited for these critics to see the newest films, read the latest books, test-spin record releases, then tell us what was good and what was dreck. In a city like this, a few dozen writers had the power to decide whether restaurants would live or die, shows would make it to Broadway, artists would go big or go home.

America used to resemble a Father Knows Best monolith; today, we’re Modern Family. We no longer watch or read or talk about the same things. We’re Inquirer or Daily News people (and increasingly neither). We’re split between red and blue. Cable channels number in the thousands, spliced into so many niches: home improvement, true crime, all soccer all the time. There’s so much more there out there. And the Internet has leveled the critical playing field; Yelp and Rotten Tomatoes and Twitter invite us to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on everything from the State of the Union address to the drinks at Brick & Mortar to the season opener of Girls. There’s no such thing as better; there’s just what you like best.

But even as I survey this vast, flat, democratized landscape, I can’t shake the notion that there is a value distinction between Petticoat Junction and World of Disney. The old-fashioned all-powerful critic, the paterfamilias decreeing from on high what was worth our time and money — what if Father really did know best? Is his diminished power why our culture now feels so crass and undistinguished — and why my daughter’s favorite TV show is The Bachelor?

IN JANUARY, THE NEWS BROKE that the New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones was taking his talents to a different venue. Or, as the New York Times headline put it, “Pop Music Critic Leaves the New Yorker to Annotate Lyrics for a Start-Up.” The start-up is called Genius, formerly known as Rap Genius, and to be fair, it doesn’t just annotate lyrics (though it did start out that way). It also annotates Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, and Chipotle’s menu, and the back of a Tylenol bottle — because, as the Genius website explains, “Any text can be as layered, as allusive and cryptic, as worthy of careful exegesis as rap lyrics.”

That’s all well and good, but what made Frere-Jones’s move news was that he was leaving the New Yorker. For a writer, that’s like exiting heaven voluntarily. Where else would he get paid to pen 3,500 words on the racial underpinnings of indie rock? In an interview with Newsweek, though, Frere-Jones explained his thinking: The Genius platform, he said, is “impermanent in that people will always be adding to it and correcting and contributing and making it better, which is a thing that’s very hard to do with any traditional piece of journalism, because it doesn’t really work that way.”

The writers I know vehemently dislike other people adding to and correcting their writing to “make it better” — even when it really needs it. And isn’t the whole reason you become a writer so you can leave a legacy — can achieve, like Shakespeare and Hemingway, the closest thing we humans have to immortality? Then again, who the hell reads magazines and books and newspapers anymore? Frere-Jones’s decampment seemed proof that long-form criticism is dead.

I wasn’t the only one noting its demise. That same month, the best-known chef in Philly, Marc Vetri, wrote a piece for the Huffington Post in which he decried the death of the real restaurant critic. Food journalists today “pander to the most basic, lowbrow instincts of the readers,” he complained, by putting out rankings and lists and inventories of stuff instead of elegant prose. Thanks to the Internet, “a major newspaper, local magazine or blog review literally all bear the same weight.” In their quest for hits and page views, food writers have “descended into the abyss of shock-and-awe journalism.”

His post provoked a furious response from this magazine’s food editor, Jason Sheehan, who mocked it as being “about how modern food writing … all sucks all the time always, and how all the punk kids in town have to get off his lawn.” The Vetri empire, Sheehan wrote, has benefited enormously from the very online critics Vetri was flaying, including Philly Mag’s Foobooz blog — not to mention from Vetri’s own “strong and well-managed social media program.” Sheehan also made this point about the “invented golden age” whose loss Vetri was bemoaning:

The old system vastly favored the venerable, the entrenched, the well-known and the well-financed. Even a daily newspaper only got to talk about 50-odd restaurants in a year. On Foobooz today, we probably name-check 50 restaurants in a week. …

Both posts were subsequently Facebooked and tweeted and commented on and linked to and further debated online.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this Internet exchange. First, both pieces are personal and uncivil (no writer wants to be told he’s pandering; no restaurateur likes to be told he “can just shut the fuck up about the evils of the internets”) in a way that public writing didn’t used to be. These aren’t two kids on a playground; they’re pillars of the local community. And they’re calling one another names.

Second, there’s the immediacy. Vetri’s post was published at 9:06 a.m. on January 27th; Sheehan’s went online a few hours later. The two were practically slugging it out in real time. In the old days, Vetri’s piece might have run as an op-ed in one of our daily newspapers. Sheehan might have responded with a letter to the editor (delivered via the post office) or in a riposte in the magazine; either way, it would have been delayed by days, if not weeks. Both pieces would have gone through the hands of professional editors, who would have tightened the writing, toned down the invective and cut the obscenities. Would they have been better? Yes. But they wouldn’t have been as much fun.

And fun is what the Internet was built for, with its Bad Lip Readings and free porn and videos of cats attacking dogs. (Well, actually, it was built so scholars could share research, but the hell with that.) It’s not much fun to be told what you should be ingesting in terms of culture instead of what you want to. But that “should” has always been the role of the critic. Gail Shister, who wrote about television for the Inquirer for 25 years (she now teaches critical writing at Penn), says critics “provide a guidepost. You invite people to participate in something great and steer them away from something that’s not worth it.” Aha! So there is stuff that’s not worth it out there?

“Oh God yes,” says Shister. “If it was just popularity, The Bachelor would be the greatest TV show of all time.”

Good critics, she says, spend years studying their field, so they can place a work in its proper historical and cultural context before issuing an opinion: “Somebody sitting in their basement with a laptop and a blog has a right to an opinion, too, but does it have the same weight? I don’t think it does.”

Wendy Rosenfield, a freelance theater critic who writes for the Inquirer, says she’s witnessed a “devaluing of critical expertise” in the course of her career. “I’ve been at this for 20 years,” she says. “I know theaters, performers, directors, designers, styles. I can see where they’re stretching, where they’re holding back. But there are people out there now writing reviews for $5 — or for a couple free tickets.”

She isn’t as willing as Shister, though, to summarily dismiss the critical proletariat. She tells of attending a convention of theater critics early in her career and finding herself one of only a few women in the room. “There were so many voices that went unheard or weren’t considered legitimate in the old days,” she says. “There were half a dozen white guys in two or three metropolitan cities deciding what was good and what was not. The Internet exposed the need for more voices, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

When it comes to food, those new voices amount to a roar. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan says that in his 17 years at the paper — which pretty much coincide with the rise of the Internet — food writing has proliferated wildly. As a result, “The whole paradigm of what’s good and what’s great is constantly being recalibrated.” He mentions a recent visit to a terrific pho house in a section of the city that he’s “pretty sure 99.9 percent of our readers never thought about going to.” Food writing now transcends social and economic prejudices, he says.

That was part of what got Marc Vetri worked up, though — that a taqueria could earn the same three-bell Inquirer rating as a high-end restaurant with full service and a bar. “Nice hummus at a counter?” Vetri sneered in a dig at LaBan’s review of Michael Solomonov’s Dizengoff. “Give the joint three stars.” And he lamented the loss of the measured pace that used to guide the reviewing process:

First, someone opens up a restaurant. Then, someone who has restaurant and/or cooking experience and knows how to write well visits the establishment numerous times, describes it and gives it a rating. … The restaurant waits anxiously for the review. …

Now, online critics post gossip and photos and menus before a restaurant’s doors even open, then vie to offer the earliest assessments (with, of course, plenteous Instagrams). They pan Allison Williams’s Peter Pan in real time on Twitter and Facebook. Don’t get Shister started on live-blogging: “That’s transcription. That offends me. And that compulsion to put out ­spoilers — to punch through that wall before a show even airs? I don’t understand that.”

The Inquirer’s Inga Saffron reviews buildings, which are a lot less transitory than a meal or a play. But even she feels the clock speeding up. “They always want it right away,” she says of editors. “That’s a problem, because it takes a while to take in what you’ve seen. You know the album Graceland? I’ve been listening to that album for 25 years and I still hear new things.” She can’t imagine being a music critic: “How much can you absorb from one performance?”

Rolling Stone’s Chris Weingarten, who does review music, has said that professional criticism in his field is “almost a thing of the past” due to the Internet. By the time album reviews appear in print, he told American Journalism Review last fall, consumers have already heard the music via strategic leaks and streaming services: “You’ve made up your mind. The whole idea of sitting down and reading eight grafs about it after all that? It’s almost like, ‘Yeah, I’ve moved on.’”

But the Internet hasn’t just altered the way we experience art; it also shapes and molds what we consider important. Television used to be a wasteland of soap operas, sitcoms and variety shows. Today, says Saffron, TV is “the new literature.” It’s unpacked in highbrow conversations, referenced in tony essays and taught at Penn. A big reason is that the Internet has made what once was a solitary experience in your living room into a big public party. Online, we recap episodes, hold joint viewing parties, tweet blow-by-blow accounts, fight bitterly over what was and wasn’t rape on Game of Thrones. Saffron tells me her friend Alessandra Stanley, chief TV critic at the New York Times, argues that television moves the culture more than film does nowadays. “I’ve been thinking more and more that it’s hard to be a literate person if you don’t watch TV,” says Saffron. My mom would not have approved. But if you accept Saffron’s definition of the critic’s role — “to tell you where something fits in our culture” — how can you ignore TV?

BESIDES, THOUGH WE THINK of professional critics as highfalutin, they weren’t always. There have been critics since Homer was singing around campfires — in the 1500s, the French writer Rabelais was already urging them to go hang themselves. But in his book The Death of the Critic, academic and writer Ronan McDonald writes that critics who make a living at it only date back to the rise of the middle class in the 18th century. When the haut monde had all the money, nobody needed what Wendy Rosenfield calls “a road map to a work of art.” Once shopkeepers and schoolteachers had enough cash to buy a book or painting, though, they wanted help deciding what was worth the cost. Critics acted, as 18th-century magazine publisher Joseph Addison put it, as “arbiters of taste.” (The word “critic” is from the Greek kritikos, meaning “to discern or judge.”) They knew more than we did about what was good and what wasn’t, and for a few centuries we were content to defer to their authority.

McDonald traces the recent demise of the paid critical class to a whole range of historical causes. As Western society became less religious, it grew increasingly uncomfortable with hierarchy, as well as with the notion of intrinsic values (goodness, truth, beauty) ultimately derived from the Divine. With the rise of modernism, and critics who told us, against our instincts, that what seemed ugly or banal or downright inane was worthy, doubt seeped further in. The 1960s and ’70s saw a full-blown rebellion against authority in any form. This affected not only parents, who railed against their kids’ long hair and loud music, but also critics, who were seen as arrogant, elitist enemies of the common man. All that mattered was what art meant to you — how you felt when you experienced it. As McDonald writes, “The era of the experts, the informed cognoscenti whose judgments and tastes operated as a lodestar for the public, has seemingly been swept aside by a public that has laid claim to its capacity to evaluate its own cultural consumption.”

In their death throes, the critics haven’t always helped their cause. In an article in January in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Princeton’s Sean Wilentz bemoaned the recent carnage at the New Republic under new owner Chris Hughes:

TNR offered its writers … the space they needed to write at full capacity. The tyranny of reviewing a book or even two in 800 words can be not much worse than having to do so in 3,000 words or even 5,000, if the writer has much more to say.

Death to tyranny and all that, sure, but who wants to read all those words? Wilentz blamed the destruction of the magazine as he knew and loved it on “a fixation on profits, now measured in hits and clicks” — i.e., on the Internet. And he asserted that moguls like Hughes — who was Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard roommate and Facebook co-founder — are “contemptuous of the ‘old’ media, with its hierarchy, its gatekeepers, its discriminations of excellence.”

Another mourner at TNR’s bier, Paul Berman, wrote in Tablet that the back of the magazine, where criticism appeared, was intended “for the uncorruptible ones, for the ones-of-a-kind, for the people who are allergic to fads and factions and the stratagems of self-advancement.” The section, he said, was “animated by the belief, keen and insistent and unstated, that humanity’s fate lies in the hands of those people.” This is not a guy who wants to read your blog.

Then again, you kind of have to be an arrogant prick to make a living assuming your opinions matter to strangers. One distinction often made between professional critics and the mob, especially by professional critics, is that the former write better — that they’ve risen through the ranks because people find what they say and how they say it resonant and provocative and smart. Good critics have the ability to crystallize and articulate thoughts and impressions the rest of us have floating around vaguely in our minds, which is why, when we read their work, we find ourselves saying, “Yes! Exactly right!” No one who read Inga Saffron’s 2007 review of Symphony House — she likened it to “a sequined and over-rouged strumpet” — can ever look at that building the same way again. And the great critics of the past amused, albeit more gently than their Internet offspring. The world would be a lesser place without Ambrose Bierce’s “The covers of this book are too far apart,” or Mark Twain on Henry James: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

But Berman may be onto something with that “humanity’s fate” stuff. Saffron recalls giving an architecture lecture in Hong Kong to a group of students mostly from mainland China: “I was explaining to them that criticism gives you a great opportunity to comment on the culture. It’s criticism as subversion.” Saffron could see their sudden recognition that commercial developments and high-rises could be entry points for cultural discussion when they went back home. “Critics make us question our values in a way that direct political writing might not,” Saffron says. “What we do can lead to social change.” The more prominent a critic’s platform, the greater the power. Of course, that power can be used for good or evil. Plenty of critics, even some very good ones, have been bigots or misogynists or just plain mean.

But plenty of the plebeian are, too, as the Internet amply demonstrates. So what kind of consensus do you wind up getting when you toss out the gatekeepers, throw the gates open, and let loose the mob to critique? Crowd-sourced Yelp is an interesting example. In a Marketplace interview with Kai Ryssdal, its CEO, Jeremy Stoppelman, said, “If you think about the world prior to Yelp, it was the world of the professional critic” — and he wasn’t waxing nostalgic. A January Marketplace segment mentioned a San Francisco restaurateur who now uses Yelp ratings to set bonuses for his managers; he rewards servers mentioned by name in five-star Yelp reviews with $25 gift cards.

Though Craig LaBan had his quarrels with Vetri’s diatribe, he pretty much agrees with the restaurateur about online reviews. “You get ‘This is what I had. I hated it,’” he says. “There’s no context, there’s questionable ethics, the motivation is dubious. You just can’t know. You get a million voices with no accountability.”

It’s only natural that the professionals would defend their bailiwick against the masses; Chris Weingarten, who describes himself in his Twitter bio as the “Last Rock Critic Standing,” has defined the role as “someone who’s trying to speak articulately in the midst of noise.” The Internet is loud, and it’s often dumb. Camilla Vásquez, a linguist at the University of South Florida who has studied online reviews, found the most frequently used interjections therein are “wow,” “yeah,” “yuck,” “yikes,” “sheesh,” “yum” and “yippee” — not exactly Edmund Wilson.

But the most interesting Yelp research may be that performed by statistician Nate Silver when he compared the site’s reviews of New York City restaurants and those in the Michelin guide, which are written by a phalanx of elite expert “inspectors.” Silver noted that Michelin reviewers have a reputation for being “pretentious and ‘out-of-touch’” (like professional critics), while Yelp’s are known as “unsophisticated, cheap, and obsessed with trivial details of the restaurant experience” (like the common man). So, how did their reviews line up? The headline on his analysis: “Yelp and Michelin Have the Same Taste in New York Restaurants.”

FOOD CRITICISM IS a bit of an outlier, though. Whatever you think of LaBan’s rating system, you can be as well nourished by a meal at Dizengoff as one at Vetri. (Another outlier: sports. We don’t think of it that way, but what is the whole immense alterna-world of sportswriting and broadcasting and blogging but a never-ending critique of real-time performance and its consequences?) There’s criticism as consumer protection, and then there’s criticism as something more — where the critic calls us in from the playground and says, “Hey! Hey! The human condition!”

Last fall, the Washington Post’s Sunday opinion-section editor, Carlos Lozada, announced he was leaving that position to become the paper’s nonfiction book critic. Lozada said he knew that lots of readers use reviews to decide what books they’re going to buy. Then he added that “lots of them also see reviews as a substitute for reading the book. … And I want to respect those readers and their needs, too. … ” That sound you heard was the breaking of a million writers’ hearts. But you can see where he’s coming from, right? It’s a new world order. Mark Zuckerberg has started a book club. The biggest box-office movie success of 2014 was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1. The Bachelor is in its 19th season. Leon Wieseltier, the New Republic literary editor who quit his job in that rift with Chris Hughes, struck out at his former boss in an essay in the New York Times: “As the frequency of expression grows, the force of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements.” The Internet is built on the power of distraction. This year the Philadelphia Orchestra introduced something called LiveNote that lets you read about the work being performed onstage on your cell phone, right there in your seat at the Kimmel. The barbarians are way past the gates.

And yet. Consider Philly’s own Jennifer Weiner, one of the most successful authors on the planet. (She declined to be interviewed for this piece, saying she was on deadline.) Weiner sells millions of copies of the books she writes. They’ve been made into a movie and a TV show. They’ve garnered thousands of ecstatic reviews on and earned her millions of dollars. Yet Weiner has been engaged for years in a fierce, quixotic battle to be reviewed in the New York Times. If popularity is all that counts, why does she continue her jihad against what she calls “literary snobbery”? Shister, an admirer and a onetime colleague of Weiner’s — they used to sit across from one another at the Inquirer — says, “Because so-called ‘legacy’ media people don’t take her seriously. Internet love is great. It makes you a best-seller. But it doesn’t carry any gravitas.”

And it doesn’t make deciding where to go for dinner any easier. We don’t wholly buy Yelp, yet we can’t just dismiss it. Democratization has only led to more uncertainty; it’s harder to know what’s worthy with so many opinions out there. Diversity is great, but how do you find voices you can trust in all that noise?

Maybe that’s why, deep down, like Weiner, so many of us do still care about the critics — the real ones, the professional ones, the ones who have earned our respect. This may be a golden age of television, but it’s also the era of umpteen Real Housewives iterations. If we’re so food-obsessed, why are we eating so many meals in our cars? Best-seller lists are packed with young-adult fiction. We see a lot more lousy movies than we used to. (Really? Another Rocky sequel?) New York Times film critic A.O. Scott was right when he wrote, “The elevation of every individual’s inarguable likes and dislikes over formal critical discourse, the unassailable ascendancy of the fan, has made children of us all.”

My mom knew: Children require guidance, even if they bristle against it. No wonder today’s battles about the new and old criticism get so nasty: We fight the way families fight, harshly, bitterly, with an intimate knowledge of each others’ weaknesses. (TNR is even racist, like your dad!) Sheehan acknowledged as much when he headlined his post “Marc Vetri: Philly’s Angry Grandpa.” We fight because we care. All of us who argue about this, on both sides, believe that art matters, in practical and ineffable ways. We don’t think its worth should be judged solely by whichever side is clapping more loudly. And we agree with critic Arthur Krystal: “Some books simply reflect a deeper understanding of the world, of history, of human relationships, of literature itself than do other books.”

Even if he does sound like a stuffy old fart, we’ll miss him when he’s gone.

Originally published in the March 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.