This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Making Sense of Reviews

            It used to be that when a Broadway show opened, the cast would repair to a restaurant afterward for a party and to wait until the early editions of the newspapers came out with the reviews. Before World War II, when there were a lot more newspapers  than now, it was a big deal. When the reviews were good, the cast went to bed knowing they’d be working for a while. If not, a period of “rest” was imminent and it was time to be thinking about the next role.
            Newspapers don’t have so much clout today, and thanks to the internet, anyone with a computer has at least some sort of audience. My mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, was published on Amazon two weeks ago, and so far has garnered two reviews. One was from a friend, and one was signed with a descriptor rather than a name, so I don’t know who it was. Both gave the book five stars out of five. You can take that any way you want, and you probably should.

Was He Feeling Lucky That Night?

            That reminds me of my first experience looking at restaurant review on Yelp, years ago. It was hard to know what to make of them. Most were so short that you couldn’t really get a sense of the standards of the person writing them and so general you couldn’t assign a weight to them. A review signed with a real name, implying accountability, was a start but nothing more.
            Knowing nothing of the circumstances, there was no way to tell what ulterior motive or backstory was behind a review. Could a vicious put-down have been written by the owner of a competing restaurant down the street? Did the reviewer have fond memories of the place because his date agreed to go back to his apartment after dinner? Or bad memories because she stalked out in a snit halfway through the meal?
            In another instance, my sister was coming down to visit and asked me to check out some day spas in the area. One was heavily reviewed on Yelp. Half the reviews raved about the place, comparing it to the facilities at a five-star resort. The other half ripped it, saying the hot tub was moldy and the equipment unsanitary. Somebody was lying, but who?

Consider the Source

            Professional critics are imperfect guides, but at least they have standards and a track record. Reading a restaurant review in The New York Times, you at least know the author wasn’t influenced by a free meal and made every effort to experience the place as an ordinary customer would. When you read a movie review in a newspaper or magazine, you’ve probably seen enough movies to know where you do and don’t agree with that particular critic, and hence, how much weight to give this particular review.
            In the case of restaurants, there’s another factor involved. A movie is going to be the same every time you look at it (though your perception is certainly subject to change), but a restaurant can have good and bad days. If a quarter of the wait staff calls in sick, leaving the rest stretched far too thin, nobody who eats at the place that night is going to have a premium experience.
            Maybe with restaurants the best idea is to do what my father did when looking for a place to eat in a strange town: Go to the place with the most pickup trucks in front, figuring the locals know best. Makes as much sense as anything else.