A couple of weeks ago at a Tribune-hosted cocktail party in the Loop, I found myself in a conversation with novelist Richard Ford. I was wearing the baseball hat I'm wearing in the photo that runs with this column, and from the corner of my eye I noticed a man staring at my hat. "You look interesting," Ford said in his quiet Southern drawl, introducing himself. A moment later, he was telling me about his recent pheasant hunting trip, though, to be honest, the only thing I could concentrate on was whether or not I had ever written anything bad about him. All I could think about was this: Richard Ford once spit on novelist Colson Whitehead at a cocktail party.
Whitehead, reviewing Ford's short story collection "A Multitude of Sins" in The New York Times, wrote, "There are a multitude of personality deficits on display, but they rarely approach the level of sin." And so, somewhat later, when Ford found himself in a room with his reviewer, he lobbed a blob of spit at Whitehead.
This rarely happens in the arts.
Probably because, well, reviews of anything as unsparing and personal as Whitehead's tend to be even rarer. It's partly why, when Times dining critic Pete Wells recently took Guy Fieri's new Times Square restaurant to task in a hilariously stinging review ("Is the shapeless, structureless baked alaska … supposed to be a representation in sugar and eggs of the experience of going insane?"), and Fieri offered a muted defense on NBC's "Today" show, their mild tussle became news itself. Although The New York Observer had written a much crueler review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar several weeks earlier — "a restaurant that would be indicted for crimes against humanity, if only that crime fell within the Department of Health's purview" — critical takedowns of that sort have been culturally dormant in recent years. They're a victim of a niceness epidemic spurred on by incestuous, mutual admiration societies, Slate magazine argued last summer.
Slate was talking about literary societies, but it hardly matters: Reviews in general seem tiptoey these days.
Or maybe we're looking in the wrong places.
About a year ago, while shopping online for holiday gifts, I became an unabashed connoisseur of the one-star amateur Amazon review. Here I found the barbed, unvarnished, angry and uncomfortably personal hatchet job very much alive. Indeed, I became so enamored of Amazon's user-generated reviews of books, films and music that my interest expanded to the one-star notices on Goodreads, Yelp and Netflix, where, for instance, a "Moneyball" review notes the movie "did not make you feel warm and fuzzy at the end as a good sports film should." How true! A rare opinion on a critical darling!
As is, to broaden things, a one-star review of "War and Peace" on Goodreads that argues: "I did not find the characters and their lives compelling enough to overcome the annoyance I felt with Tolstoy's personal vision of history and life in general …"
Goodreads' one-star reviews, though, are relatively tempered and thoughtful, lacking the snark that defines a truly lacerating one-star review. Comparably, Amazon is the Wild West, particularly its one-star reviews of the celebrated and the classic. Here you find that "To Kill a Mockingbird," frankly, "sucked … the prejudice part was good. I think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it wasn't that deep." Sure, many one-star reviews on Amazon are more concerned with technical than aesthetic issues ("If you care at all about this vital novel, don't purchase the audio cassette version of 'Moby-Dick' read by Burt Reynolds"). And, of course, bad spelling and punctuation (cleaned up in this column) do undermine things.
But where else can you find a reviewer separate from the herd so completely and admit, "I have a lot of patience, but who has the time to sit and read a book that goes on and on about nothing?" The reviewer, identified as an eighth-grader, was unloading on "Great Expectations." Before you argue that these are just the gripes of lazy schoolchildren, here's a review of Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" that takes a much longer view: "My only revenge for being forced to read 'Tess' as a kid is to write a negative review as an adult. So there, that's done." Or how about the review of Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" that claims it "has an ugly consciousness and mean spirit"? Or a review of "The Wire" that groans "all of the various episodes establish and explore a single, drumming theme: WHY NOTHING IN THIS GODAWFUL CITY EVER CHANGES"?
Or this stunning dismissal of The Clash's "London Calling" that does not mince words: "Blink 182? Good Charlotte? The Clash? Isn't it all the same three-chord pop nonsense?"
It may be stunning in its obvious ignorance of historical precedent. But it's not totally without a point either. As a huge Springsteen fan, I may scoff at the one-star review of "Born to Run" that refers to it as Meat Loaf-esque bombast, "overproduced mini-operas tied together by a piano," but why can't I forget it?
Likewise, if I claim to have any sense of humor at all, there is no way I should argue with the person whose one-star Amazon review of the Bible comes to this fantastic conclusion: "Too many unanswered questions." (Incidentally, of the 1,238 reviews on Amazon of this particular edition, more than 60 are one-star reviews.)
Reading these — late at night, one after another, compulsively, as if one-star reviews on Amazon were episodes of that stupid TV show "The Wire" — I am reminded of the scene in the new movie "Silver Linings Playbook" in which Bradley Cooper stays up all night reading "A Farewell to Arms," only to be outraged at Hemingway's ending. He curses and flings the book through a closed window.
Don't misunderstand me: There is no shortage of self-appointed online authorities more than willing to share their uninformed thoughts on books, movies and music; they are legion and could populate a small nation. I also do not aim to celebrate hatchet jobs, which tend to be as much about drawing attention to the critic as to the work itself.
But there is a visceral thrill to reading amateur reviewers on Amazon who, unlike professional critics, do not claim to be informed or even knowledgeable, who do not consider context or history or ambition, who do not claim any pretense at all. Their reviews, particularly of classics, often read as though these works had dropped out of space into their laps, and they were first to experience it. About "Moby-Dick," one critic writes: "Essentially, they rip off the plot to 'Jaws.'" About "Ulysses," another critic writes: "I honestly cannot figure out the point, other than cleverness for cleverness' sake."
Like any number of Amazon critics who casually eviscerate, and who feel no compunction about tossing crude grenades in tony, well-regarded rooms, these people often seem to be reacting in real time. They are beholden to no one, unencumbered by reputations or editors. They have read "Ulysses" and snapped the thing shut, and then, virtually and angrily, in a fever of untempered, uninhibited feeling, hurled James Joyce's masterwork through the nearest closed window.
Isn't this what we hope art does?
Raise our blood pressure?
"There is something beautiful about a person holding a grudge against James Joyce in 2012," said Caroline Picard, editor of Chicago-based Green Lantern Press. "The truth is, you pick up Joyce, you are told it's meaningful and has a place in history, and when it doesn't fulfill expectations, it is hard saying that. I imagine it'd be hard for critics too. Especially one who is an authority or claims to be. Not liking something can seem like there's something inherently wrong with them. But you don't always climb out on limbs."
Likewise, to seriously dismiss "The Great Gatsby" as "'Twilight' without the vampires," as an Amazon reviewer did, may be glib and reductive, but it's also brilliantly spot on, the kind of comparison a more mannered critic might not dare. "Whoever made that 'Twilight' comparison, whether they know it, is showing their education, that they can connect new media with old works and draw fresh conclusions," said David Raskin, chair of the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Raskin is a fellow connoisseur. He told me he often reads one-star reviews on Amazon, "especially the ones by cranks. The one-star reviews often reveal gaps in the culture worth pursuing, the kind that tend to make people uncomfortable." For instance, this one-star review of Toni Morrison's "Beloved" that, reading between the lines, reveals a deep, maybe class-based inferiority complex: "This is like a deliberately hideous painting called 'art' by intellectuals. Common-sense individuals question its merit and are told it is complex, beautiful and beyond the untrained understanding and crass sensibilities of the uneducated."
A review of "The Godfather: Part II" that complains, "I wanted a gangster movie, not a family drama," suggests a generational split. And a one-star review of William Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury" that admits that the reviewer has been very busy these days, having recently read "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "Hamlet," and therefore was not to be trusted here, is oddly admirable for its honesty.
Can you imagine arts critics pointing out how busy they are, and thus how exhausted and compromised?
Speaking of honesty: It should be pointed out here that, in general, online amateur reviews are not mean but usually as forgiving as the professional sort. Bing Liu, a data-mining expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has studied online reviews — "partly because I was curious if they were real or just someone gaming the system" — told me that 60 percent of Amazon reviews are five-star reviews and another 20 percent are four-star. The information research firm Gartner released a study in September predicting that, within a couple of years, between 10 and 15 percent of online reviews will be paid for by companies — rigged.
Presumably, they will be positive.
I'm not worried. If anything, all that positivity only renews my admiration for the cranks, the unreasonable. I was a full-time critic for years. As a critic, you are paid to have a heightened understanding of what you are writing about. Your friends say you can't enjoy whatever it is you cover — movies, theater, etc. — the way an average Joe can enjoy it. And you protest: You always want to have that "normal person" reaction too. Truth is, history, employment, reputation, context — the world hangs heavy. But the amateur is free.
The amateur always gets the last word.