page highlights questions about literary, artistic, film,
music and restaurant reviews.
It covers -
following page considers reviews by non-professionals, in
particular 'gripe sites'.
Australian and overseas courts have long recognised that
of the arts and of businesses perform valuable functions
as entertainment and consumer protection,
is subjectivity in aesthetic judgments about performance
and literary, musical or artistic expression
may be honestly held and strongly expressed but acceptable
because not malicious and because they are presented as
opinion rather than fact
audiences have some discernment, drawing on other sources
of information (including their own experience) and a
capacity to assess statements by a critic.
recognition has been reflected in a history of 'rotten reviews',
some of which resulted in defamation action and on occasion
have been blamed for the death of a theatrical production,
end of a performer's career (or erosion of livelihood) or
closure of a new restaurant or other venue.
Reviews do not exist outside defamation law but arguably
have a special status, with action often being determined
on specific circumstances.
Perceptions of what is acceptable in reviewing have changed
over time, reflecting community standards (influenced by
familiarity and by egregious abuses) and the impact on courts
of efforts by the 'reviewed' to gain redress.
From a historical perspective most contemporary reviewing
seems quite tame compared to the norm in 1890s Vienna or
1920s New York and Sydney, where there appears to have been
substantial judicial and community acceptance of reviewing
red in tooth and claw.
On occasion that was partly due to the verve with which
reviews, however unfair, even spiteful, were written. It
has also been attributed to the availability of competing
reviews, with suggestions that there is less pressure to
be fair when consumers have a number of information sources
about the worth of a work or performance. A single review,
however painful, might thus not kill a theatrical production,
close a restaurant or condemn a new novel to the remainder
Literary critic Clive James, in discussing contemporary
snark (reviews aimed at boosting the reviewer) commented
book reviews there have always been, and probably always
should be. At their best, they are written in defence
of a value, and in the tacit hope that the author, having
had his transgressions pointed out, might secretly agree
that his book is indeed lousy. All they attack, or seem
to attack, is the book. But a snark blatantly attacks
the author. It isn't just meant to retard the author's
career, it is meant to advance the reviewer's, either
by proving how clever he is or simply by injuring a competitor.
more succinctly sniffed that "Criticism is prejudice
made plausible", in contrast to Sainte-Beuve's claim
that a critic is "a man whose watch is five minutes
ahead of other people's".
Kenneth Tynan aped Wilde in claiming that "a critic
is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car"
and that -
are consumers of one art, drama, and producers of another,
criticism. What counts is not their opinion, but the art
with which it is expressed ... The best informed man will
be a bad critic if his style is bad.
Mamet argued that the "World's Perfect Theatrical Review"
I never understood the theater until last night. Please
forgive everything I've ever written. When you read this
I'll be dead.
Lebrecht suggested that -
critics go to a show eager to fawn or find fault. Good
critics rush to judgement before the curtain falls. Great
critics take their seats, whether in a Soho studio on
a Monday morning or at the Metropolitan Opera on gala
night prepared to fall in love. They may despise the
producers and question the credentials of every cast member
but when the lights go down their breathing quickens like
a child's on its birthday. Their verdict may amount to
defamation and damnation in a brutal phrase that will
resound for a generation.
have noted that some creators have a capacity to strike
back when criticised. The underrated Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904),
for example, is now best known through caricature as Beckmesser
in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. Martin Amis noted
that writing is the only art in which practitioner and critic
share the same medium.
There has been surprisingly little writing about self-regulation,
ie the extent to which abuses are restricted by condemnation
on the part of peers rather than by lawsuits.
Churton Collins' scathing review of a characteristically
inept work by Edmund Gosse for example appears to have generated
support for Gosse and condemnation of Collins. Housman's
condemnation of Benjamin Jowett's Plato as "the best
translation of a Greek philosopher which has ever been executed
by a person who understood neither philosophy nor Greek"
in contrast seems to have been embraced by the literati.
Colin McGinn's 2007 review of On Consciousness
by fellow academic Ted Honderich complained that -
book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous
to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought
out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent.
... His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It
is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept,
being savaged by a particular reviewer could become a sign
of quality and even increase the price of the criticised
work, for example certifying that it was avant garde or
merely worth a blast from the olympian heights of the New
York Herald Tribune or Le Figaro.
Much criticism seems merely curious, like Auden's infatuation
for Tolkien's novels (mocked by Edmund Wilson in 'Oo, Those
Awful Orcs!', The Nation 1956), Henry James's characterisation
of early Proust as "inconceivable boredom associated
with the most extreme ecstasy which it is possible to imagine"
or Aldous Huxley's description of Proust as a hermaphrodite
toadlike creature "spooning his own tepid juice over
his face and body". Blackwood's dismissed
Keats' Endymion by sniffing
venture to make our small prophecy that his bookseller
will not a second time venture 50 pounds on anything he
can write. It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved
apothecary than a starved poet. So back to the shop, Mr.
Matthew Arnold snottily complaining that in Keats there
is "something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth
ill brought up".
Courts in Australia and elsewhere have embraced notions
of 'fair comment' in the public interest, with an emphasis
on opinion as distinct from misrepresentation of fact. That
opinion may be wrongheaded or inept but if it is honestly
held and serves the community it is defensible. Would most
people read reviews that were so cautious as to provide
little assessment of the subject's value?
In 2007 for example a UK appeal court found that an Evening
Standard review by Veronica Lee of Keith Burstein's
opera Manifest Destiny, which featured the implication
that the work made suicide bombers appear heroic, was fair
comment on a matter of public interest.
In the original court decision the publisher was ordered
to pay Burstein £8,000. The appeal judge concluded
that the review was fair comment, with Burstein being ordered
to repay the £8,000 and pay the Standard's
costs, estimated at £67,000. Burstein announced that
he would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights after
failing to win permission for his case to be heard by the
House of Lords. In 2008 he was declared bankrupt after failing
to pay the newspaper and failing to convince the chief registrar
that payment should be delayed until after any hearing by
the European Court.
Some idea of the perils of criticism is provided by the
experience of arts and food critic Leo Schofield. He was
sued by an Australian restaurant in 1984 after a tough restaurant
review in the Sydney Morning Herald featured the
comment that he had been served a lobster that resembled
"albino walrus". The publisher paid out $100,000.
The Coco Roco restaurant case, decided by the High Court
during 2007 in what was exaggeratedly described by some
as "the end of criticism", featured description
by Herald critic Matthew Evans that flavours "jangled
like a car crash", a sauce was a "wretched garnish"
and that "more than half the dishes I've tried at Coco
Roco are simply unpalatable". Coco Roco closed three
months after the review, a demise blamed on the reviewer.
Perhaps expectations are different in the UK. Schofield
contemporary A A Gill has gained attention for describing
dishes as having the taste, texture and temperature of "happy
youthful vomit", as like "eating sweet Magimixed
maggots" and tasting "as if your mouth had been
used as the swab bin in an animal hospital".
He notoriously savaged a London restaurant in 2002 by asking
"Why is there never a Palestinian suicide bomber when
you need one?" in a review that featured the claim
chickpea soup was like sucking wet sand, the Blonde's
bourride was an accident involving a hair-dryer and an
aquarium, the flat chicken supreme was a battered hen,
the ham was sweaty and curling, the wine (I'm told) was
having a sex change to vinegar, and the service was resting
while its agent placed the treatment/novel/play.
Five years later the high court in Belfast awarded £25,000
damages to Goodfellas Restaurant & Pizzeria over review
in the Irish News by critic Caroline Workman. In
2008 Northern Ireland lord chief justice Kerr, quashed that
verdict and ordered a retrial, commenting that
have decided that there was misdirection in the present
case. ... Although I consider it likely that a properly
directed jury would conclude that sufficient factual substratum
existed for the comment which constituted the preponderance
of the article, I cannot be certain that this is so and
I would therefore order a retrial.
The publisher's representative had argued that in the UK
anything identified as a review is to be accepted as 'comment'
(irrespective of presentation as opinion or fact); the bare
substratum of fact required to sustain that comment is that
the reviewer had the experience he or she claims, in this
instance that the meal was ordered and served; 'fair comment'
is defined as any comment an honest person could have drawn
from the available facts; a comment may be called 'fair',
"however exaggerated, or even prejudiced, the language
may be"; malice has no power to mitigate a defence
of fair comment, as long as the reviewer genuinely holds
the views he expressed.
A subsequent review of the same restaurant featured the
comment, unfair or otherwise, that "I'd have guessed
I was eating thin strips of mole poached in Ovaltine"
rather than pollo marsala.
Matthew Norman described the French onion soup at another
restaurant as -
thin, pernicious liquid seemingly created by adding a
few ladles of hot water to a dollop of Marmite - this
suggested the dribblings of a geriatric yak in the latter
stages of renal disease.
UK Daily Mirror columnist Matthew Wright more expensively
slammed David Soul in a 1998 review of Nick Darke's The
Dead Monkey, resulting in £20,000 damages plus
£150,000 legal costs. Wright did not attend the performance,
although claiming that it was "without doubt the worst
West End show I have seen". He also incorrectly claimed
that only 45 people were at the performance, which was shown
to have been attended by three times that number, and that
ushers had begged the audience not to walk out.
more entertaining was watching the audience watch David
Soul. Stunned American tourists could hardly believe the
balding old man with a wobbly beer gut was the handsome
guy they remembered from his Hutch days. Muffled sniggering
turned to hoots of derisive laughter ... London's Whitehall
Theatre was so empty it would have made more sense to
use it to shelter the homeless than carry on with the
2004 Schofield lamented of the National Museum in Canberra
was and remains an unmitigated disaster, an obscenely
extravagant monument to architectural ego, faddishness,
misguided political correctness, parochial vanities, compromise
and technomania. Visiting is a dispiriting business. Finding
anything to like about it is almost impossible.
is of course rather mild compared to some of the brickbats
thrown at masters such as Gropius, Mackintosh, Le Corbusier,
Lutyens or Seidler.
The latter famously sued Patrick Cook for defamation over
a 1982 cartoon in The National Times, with the
jury finding that although the cartoon was defamatory, a
defence of fair comment applied as the cartoon was an expression
of opinion rather than fact and an opinion which an honest
man might have held.
Film, theatre and literary criticism has attracted attention
for its wrongheadedness and because some venom has long
outlasted the object of criticism.
Dorothy Parker for example dismissed Marion Davies as having
only "two expressions, joy and indigestion" and
panned Katharine Hepburn's performance in The Lake
as running "the whole gamut of emotions, from A to
B". Brooks Atkinson claimed that "Farley Granger
played Mr Darcy with all the flexibility of a telegraph
pole". Katherine Mansfield savaged a contemporary in
1917 by writing -
M Forester never gets any further than warming the teapot.
He's a rare fine hand at that. Feel this teapot. Is it
not beautifully warm? Yes, but there ain't going to be
Twain more succinctly said of Henry James that "Once
you put down one of his books, you simply can't pick it
up again". Oscar Wilde assessed Dickens's The Old
Curiosity Shop by noting "One must have a heart
of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing".
William Cobbett claimed that -
the whole of Milton's poem, Paradise Lost, is
such barbarous trash, so outrageously offensive to reason
and to common sense that one is naturally led to wonder
how it can have been tolerated by a people, amongst whom
astronomy, navigation, and chemistry are understood.
vented his spleen on Gulliver's Travels as "filthy
in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene"
and evidence of Swift's "diseased mind". Byron
merely found Chaucer "obscene and contemptible".
The influential Quarterly Review dismissed Percy
Bysshe Shelley's Prometheus Unbound in 1820 as
"Absolutely and intrinsically unintelligible".
A later critic dismissed The Great Gatsby as falling
"into the class of negligible novels". A D Hope
dismissed Patrick White's The Tree of Man as "pretentious
and illiterate verbal sludge". Stalin-toady Tikhon
Krennikov damned work by Shostakovich as "neuroticism,
escapism, abnormal, repulsive pathology"; Mark Twain
said "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds".
Baudelaire more memorably said -
love Wagner; but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung
up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to
the panes of glass with its claws
rejected the Beatles in 1962 with the comment that "We
don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out".
Dorothy Parker skewered televangelist Aimee Semple McPherson's
autobiography In the Service of the King by writing
may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity,
frankness, and simple effort. It may be, too, that the
Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario
1983 UK actress Charlotte Cornwell was awarded £10,000
for a review by Nina Myskow in the Sunday People
that warned -
can't sing, her bum is too big, and she has the sort of
stage presence that jams lavatories.
criticism was gentler than the review of the Cherry Sisters
(or by Ruskin of Whistler) noted earlier
in this profile. Cornwell had reputedly spent over £70,000
in costs in the initial case and appeal. Beryl Bainbridge's
mordant Harriet Said was rejected by one publisher
in 1958 with the words "What repulsive little creatures
you have made the central characters, repulsive beyond belief".
It was not published until 1972.
Criticism by journalists often seems tame when compared
with reviews in scholarly and professional journals, where
scholars such as AE Housman and Hugh Trevor-Roper metaphorically
eviscerated opponents before dancing on their graves. Academia
is another country: they do things differently there, without
the niceties of a Geneva
Reviews within publishing, film production and music businesses
can be even crueller and more inept. Orwell's Animal
Farm was famously rejected by Knopf, for example, on
the basis that it was "impossible to sell animal stories
in the USA". The same publisher turned down English-language
rights to the Diary of Anne Frank as -
dull ... a dreary record of typical family bickering,
petty annoyances and adolescent emotions. Sales would
be small because the main characters were neither familiar
to Americans nor especially appealing. Even if the work
had come to light five years ago, when the subject was
timely, I don't see that there would have been a chance
Buck's The Good Earth got the thumbs down on the
basis that US readers were "not interested in anything
on China". Isaac Bashevis Singer was dismissed as "It's
Poland and the rich Jews again", Nabokov's Lolita
was "too racy", Baldwin's Giovanni's Room
was "hopelessly bad" and assessment of Sylvia
Plath featured the comment that "there certainly isn't
enough genuine talent for us to take notice".
Abraham Lincoln, a very successful corporate lawyer
before moving into the Oval Office, minimised exposure in
a review that famously commented "people who like this
sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like"
- legally impeccable but not very informative.
Some authors and business owners have copped criticism on
the chin, rather than heading to court, accepting that expressions
of personal nastiness or mere incomprehension are part of
engagement with the world. Some restaurants have questioned
whether a single bad review could close a restaurant. Others
have noted that particular critics are perceived as extravagant
and that being outrageously damned is one way to get into
the public consciousness, particularly if good word of mouth
offsets brickbats from 'Mr Nasty'.
Max Reger (in a response that has variously been attributed
to James Joyce and Evelyn Waugh) responded to one rotten
review by writing -
am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your
review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me.
have occasionally claimed that defamation judgements will
be the death of freedom, truth or merely spirited writing.
After the High Court's 2007 decision in John Fairfax
v Gacic, for example SMH restaurant critic
Simon Thomsen commented that "anything short of hagiography
will be defamatory", with Leo Schofield asking
a poor review leads to diminished returns at the box office
of the theatre are we now going to say that it is due
to the review and not to the quality of the work?
Collections of negative reviews are a minor but sprightly
genre. They include Creme de la Phlegm (Carlton:
Miegunyah Press 2006) edited by Angela Bennie, Bad
Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever! (London: Barron's
2002) edited by Laura Ward and Pushcart's Complete Rotten
Reviews and Rejections (New York: Pushcart Press 1998)
edited by Bill Henderson & André Bernard.
A persuasive defence of Hanslick appears in Peter Gay's
magisterial Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Masters and
Victims in Modernist Cultures (New York: Oxford Uni
Insights into the vicissitudes of criticism appear in letters
and memoirs by or biographies of critics, for example The
Letters of Kenneth Tynan (London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson 1994) and Diaries of Kenneth Tynan (London:
Bloomsbury 2001), Mimi Sheraton's Eating My Words: An
Appetite For Life (New York: Morrow 2004), Elin McCoy's
The Emperor of Wine: The Rise of Robert M. Parker, Jr.
and the Reign of American Taste (New York: Ecco 2005),
Steven Shaw's Turning the Tables (New York: HarperCollins
2005), Ruth Reichl's Garlic & Sapphires: The Secret
Life of a Critic in Disguise (New York: Penguin 2005).
Other insights are offered in Sandra McColl's 1998 'Karl
Kraus and Music Criticism: The Case of Max Kalbeck' in 82
Musical Quarterly 2, Who Keeps the Score on
the London Stages? (London: Routledge 2000) by Kalin
Stefanova, Never Order Chicken on a Monday: Kitchen
Chronicles of an Undercover Food Critic (Sydney: Random
2007) by Matthew Evans and Kitchen Con: Writing on the
Restaurant Racket (New York: Arcade 2007) by Trevor
René Wellek's eight volume A History of Modern
Criticism: 1750-1950 (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 1955-1992)
offers an account of grand theory in literary criticism,
rather than daggers in the back.
Salient Australian cases include -
Fairfax Publications Pty Ltd v Gacic  HCA 28
(14 June 2007) | here