The history of the pan is older than Pan. Should you consult Wikipedia, you will learn that the very first cuneiform ledger compiled by the Sumerians listed an inventory of ‘One hundred six amphorae of the finest mountain wine’ immediately followed by the accountant’s margin note: ‘Actually, this overpriced pig-swill sucks the über-schlong’.
You see, as long as men and women have been creating things, there have been others born to piss and moan about them. This is human nature, especially among the jealous and the untalented, and so, somewhere along the way, we elevated such sniveling, lonely, nit-pickers to titled status:
Why? Because we believe that aesthetic pursuits should be held to certain cherished values as delineated by self-appointed cultural arbiters? Because we enjoy becoming part of a virtual community of artistic, experience-sharing souls? Because we trust that those clever enough to wear the title ‘Book/Film/Restaurant/Wine Reviewer’ will winnow out the chaff from the wheat before we spend precious wages on leisure?
Of course not. It’s because we love the shit review.
The Germans invented the term ‘schadenfreude’, and fittingly, no race on earth—Master or otherwise—has ever demonstrated schadenfreude as an institutionalized lifestyle so thoroughly. You know what the word means, of course, and you know that there is no synonym for it in English. Normally, we do not like to borrow things from the Germans, especially after they borrowed Poland and refused to return it (without making a big whoop-de-doo), but we English scholars have simply not come up with a substitute word that describes so well the worst of our ungodly mortal spirit:
We enjoy the suffering of others.
Don’t we just?! We delight in our neighbor’s yellowing lawn! We relish in our co-worker’s arrest for accessing kiddie porn on company time! Look at those morbid old postcards of the grinning crowds at a public execution—what do you think that was all about?
Aristotle spoke of epikhairekakos (ἐπιχαιρέκακος) when a person takes pleasure in another’s ill fortune; Schopenhauer said, “To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish.”
And guess what? Physiology proves it out: Studies indicates that the hormone oxytocin may be involved in the feeling of schadenfreude, and oxytocin sounds like OxyContin, and remember how happy we all were when Rush Limbaugh announced that he was addicted to it?
Moving Right Along…
And so, the shit review.
First, let’s look inside the brain of a critic and attempt to understand it.
To begin with, I think we can all agree that the slightest ‘conflict of interest’ in a review invalidates it, and so, as a result, credible critics must come from the ranks of those outside the industry. It would thereby follow that anyone who wants to french-kiss a topic long enough to learn about it, think about what they learned and then write about it, yet can’t muster up enough entry-level talent to make an actual career doing it, is the perennial outsider looking in—the Sir Geek-a-Lot kid that nobody wanted on their team in sandlot baseball.
As children, such creepy misfits often develop passive-aggressive ‘actings out’ like tearing the wings off flies and pinching baby siblings while Mom is taking a dump, and as adults may build secret dungeons in their cellars to keep sex slaves.
A few, however, become journalists. And, bolstered by the protection of the First Amendment, once empowered as one of the supreme cultural arbiters mentioned earlier, a ‘critic’ can (with impunity) begin to take revenge upon all the gifted types engaged in creative output of the sort they will never be able to do themselves.
And trust me, passive-aggressive revenge it is, although it would be tough to find a critic who’d admit it. Once the initial blush of a byline and a readership—however miniscule—wears off, and the new critic settles into the mundane day-to-day obligations of keeping his minions salivating for more material, he or she may learn a cardinal rule of life, which, of course, is best summarized by the NASCAR brain trust:
The only reason teenagers go to submarine races is to french kiss while submarines crash.
A shit review is the metaphorical trainwreck that everybody really wants to see.
Newbie Critics Beware:
That said, shit reviews are only effective if they are peppered judiciously throughout a slew of boring ‘positive’ reviews. This is something you need to learn quickly and deal with accordingly. If people think you are the putty-colored, unskilled weakling that you actually are, your shit review will come across as the whining of an elitist snob with an entitlement attitude—which is exactly what it is. A shit review, therefore, only works when buried among thousands of gushy and fellationary puff-pieces—the brown-nosing buckets of drivel you must write to establish yourself as enough of an expert on a subject to give your opinion weight. Only then will your dutiful, if somnolent readerhood sit up and take notice when you rip someone far more on-the-ball than you are a new sphincter.
But believe me, this is the moment your readers have been waiting for. And take it to the bank: They will put in however many man-hours are required to get there.
Disagree? Let me ask you this: Did you or did you not sit through one hundred twenty-eight gruelingly, agonizingly, mind-bendingly stupid moments of Basic Instinct simply to see Sharon Stone’s hoo-hoo-ha-ha when she crossed her legs??
Yes, you did—bailiff, call the next case.
And Now, The Fun Part!
For some, writing a review while trying to maintain a mentally-balanced, super-smart, nice-guy façade is tough. For others, it’s easy as dropping a few pounds at Bergen-Belsen. I am in the former camp—a walking therapy bill. If you are too, you will find that every painful effort you take to sound wholesome, bon vivant and impartial pays double-dividends in the end, when you finally let loose on some hapless, unsuspecting sot. It is schadenfreude squared—not only will your readers delight in the humiliating beat down of some egomaniacal ‘artiste’, but they will equally enjoy a chance to rubberneck at your own personal meltdown.
Because, let’s be honest, droogies: There is nothing more hilarious than watching a staid, sober, self-restrained fucktard critic go completely insane.
Evidence: A Key Requirement of Theoretical Postulation.
So, yesterday, Alder Yarrow—the critic that every girl’s mother loves, the Little Bobby Shafto of cultural arbiters, a bubbly, loverly young fellow who opines on children and puppies and ‘forest bathing’ along with the requisite cauldrons of plonk—decided to flex his cock-a-doodle-doo and offer the following social media hatchet job:
“Absolutely horrid meal at Chiarello’s Coqueta tonight. Lovely ambiance, but that’s about all the place had going for it. The food wasn’t just OK, it was crappy. Even their olive oil was lousy. And waiting 35 minutes for one of your five tapas dishes to arrive? It felt like a joke — about as funny as when they told us that their Patatas Bravas was sold out (at 5:30 PM). Seriously? Sold out? But not sold out of all four of those other dishes you’ve got on the menu that also have potatoes in them? Not even in the same universe as Contigo.”
Ouch, baby; ouch.
But, you see, it was effective! Why? Because it arose from the pen of a normally model, rosy-cheeked, curly-headed critic, that’s why. Responses ranged from a nervous, apologetic-sounding “Wow, what a bummer…” to the somewhat indignant, one-of-the-two-of-us-is-nuts harrumph, “I had an amazing meal there about a month ago!”.
Dozens of commenters chimed in, mostly agreeing with the zero-star review. They smelled blood. They sensed that Mr. Yarrow’s hallowed halo had been splattered with bile-flavored umbrage—‘high dudgeon’, as Miss Marple might say—and everyone wanted in on the action! The opportunity to become likewise outraged at the unparalleled idiocy of a restaurant inconveniencing a critic over something so basic as Patatas Bravas was (apparently) too good to pass up!
And suddenly, everyone was a part of the neural, how-dare-they berserk-o-sphere, a virtual network of angry wannabe critics spewing secret venoms from built-up wells of first-world pique over having spent hard-earned scril in restaurants that didn’t quite ‘measure up.’
Amazing stuff. Had Yarrow actually gotten his brave little taters and his tapas on time, had the olive oil been extra virgin rather than a little yellow slut that’s been around the block a few times, he might have said he liked the joint, and that same simmering sea of splenetic sycophants would have loosed a collective yawn. It would have been like the gawkers at a murder house after the corpse has been hauled off; ‘Nothing to see here, folks, move along, go back inside your psyches…’
Because, of course, in the end, schadenfreude originates deep in our hypothalmi, alongside our need for comfort, joy, to scam on girls who french kiss on first dates and punch trifling homeboys who disrespect them. And yet if I—even moi—were called upon to critique Yarrow’s critique, I would be hard-pressed to find anything other than savage delight in the public smackdown. Pressed harder, I might have to admit that most of it is plagiarized, but then I’d have to cite the source of the original, and that is a place that most of you do not want to go. No doubt, Contact Publishing in Amsterdam will sue me for revealing that in editing The Diary of Anne Frank in 1947, they chose to leave out what may, in fact, be the most diabolically mean food critique of all time—the Sistine Chapel of the shit review:
“Absolutely horrid meal at Stalag XI-B tonight. Sub-zero al fresco ambiance, but fresh air was about all the place had going for it. The gruel wasn’t just OK, it was crappy. Even their water was lousy. And waiting 35 months for one of your five allotted grams of bread to arrive? It felt like a joke — about as funny as when they told us that their potato-peel soup was sold out (at 5:30 PM). Seriously? Sold out? But not sold out of all four of those other dishes you’ve got on the menu that also have potato peels in them? Not even in the same universe as Auschwitz.”
Ouch again. I couldn’t touch that level of snark with a ten-foot Pole from the anti-fascist resistance movement. I will not comment on the fact that Stalag XI-B closed a scant two months after Ms. Frank wrote this scathing review, I will merely touch my finger to the side of my nose and raise my fist in the universal gesture of power.
A Couple of Pertinent Quotes Prior to my Leave Taking…
“As critics, we have no friends. This is a good thing.” – Charles Baudelaire, 1860
“I long for a new and abusive school of criticism to cut through all the charlatans.” – Rebecca West, 1914
…And, of course, depending on Chiarello’s reaction to the Yarrow snub, perhaps the most impertinently pertinent quote of all:
“It is better to be feared than loved.” – Niccolò Machiavelli, 1532