And now I’m back in Bangkok, with a different hat on. In London, I hold my stuff up to criticism; here, I’m the one doing the critting. Or am I, really?
Many people have mused in the past decade over the extent to which Web 2.0 has made professional critics all but redundant. Never mind the perceptive analysis, seems to be the message; just tot up those stars. Well, yes and no. Obviously there are perceptive critics on blogs and other sites; but to sift successfully through the sludgestorm of opinion on any specific cultural product, the consumer needs to have critical faculties of his/her own; who crits the crits? I’m delighted with the level of response that my books have attracted on Amazon and similar sites, even the negative stuff; it really is better than not being talked about. But I’m always reminded that many ordinary readers have priorities that differ a little from those who review for broadsheets and learned journals. One person complained that my Leonard Cohen biography contained language not known to his Microsoft Word dictionary; several said they’d have liked the Noughties book better if it had had pictures.
And already we’re in dangerous territory. As RATM’s shouty rudeness began to threaten the Yuletide niche that had apparently been granted in perpetuity to his witless catamite of the moment, Simon Cowell accused those behind the campaign not just of attacking The X Factor, but of having a dig at the viewers and voters: “I also think it's incredibly dismissive of the people who watch and enjoy the show,” he said from through his big, fake teeth, “to treat our audiences as if they're stupid and I don't like that.” Of course Cowell can’t call his audiences stupid to their stupid, bovine, let’s-give-our-money-to-Simon faces; any more than I can do a Ratner and call my readers stupid if they want more pictures.
The thing is, people who post reviews on Amazon, or buy copies of the ‘The Climb’, don’t have to answer to anyone. Those of us who are lucky enough to be able to sneer for a living find very quickly that we don’t have an entirely free hand. As I pick morosely over one more high-end soufflé of mediocrity, I’m always aware of the chain that connects the dish to the restaurant to the owner who may or may not deign to advertise in the publication that sent me here in the first place. AA Gill might have the licence to tear a new alimentary canal for every restaurant he visits; most of us mere hacks operate in a fuzzy neverwhere between free speech and advertorial. So I often find myself turning in copy as insipid as the so-called bouillabaisse I endured at [NAME OF OVERPRICED BANGKOK EATERY RESCINDED]
Would restaurants (and publishers and film studios and car manufacturers) really be just as happy with feedback from Amazon reviewers who don’t know much about music but quite liked that one by Coldplay, or maybe Napalm Death, provided said punters were only permitted to offer four- or five-star reviews? Only up to a point. A multi-starred chef would be a tad conflicted by unstinting praise from a diner whose best point of reference is KFC. Those who offer product want public criticism that is to an extent informed, but not in the slightest bit incisive. From the point of view of the producers, the ideal food critic – or the ideal person to decide what is or isn’t an appropriate Christmas number one – is one who knows a lot about food or music, but doesn’t hold any strong opinions; in fact, one who doesn't really like food or music very much.