22
Sep
13

barbers and bagels

While traveling this summer I perused quite a few entries on Yelp and UrbanSpoon. Entries that aimed at providing readers with a fair assessment of the quality of certain establishments: bagel shops, barber shops, coffee shops. Restaurants and bookstores. I tried to glean what I could from the reviews, often carefully written.

“Terrible bagels! too chewy”; and (of the same shop) “Excellent bagels: authentic and chewy”. (They were delicious.)

“A gem of a bookstore; a shame if it ever closes”. Image

Falling for that one, I entered a cave of doom, where all neglected grammars and primers go to die among the remainder copies of biographies of Jane Fonda and Pee wee Herman. Still, a discerning reader had enough information to make an informed choice.

I became unsettled about the reliability of these reviews when, as I sat in the barber chair, either humoring or being humored by the man with scissors and comb, he urged me to go to Yelp and post a review of his shop.

“There’s a contest.”

Does this mean you will give me a free haircut? If a product is good, I expect it will promote itself, and customers will think to themselves, “Hey, I read about it on Yelp, so I’ll go home and review it myself now.”

I think the reason the barber’s request concerns me is that it fiddles with writing that ought to be intrinsically motivated. I did go back home that afternoon and write my first ever Yelp review. But I did so under protest. I didn’t enjoy it. Left to my own choice, wouldn’t the spirit of my praise have sung off the page like a Pinsky poem? 

I am curious to tap in to the enjoyment, the intrinsic motivation that drives people to post a specific type of review on those sites. Reviews filled with the aroma of fresh bagels, the nostril-tingle of freshly ground coffee beans, barbed attacks at the tattooed clerk for not calling your name loudly enough in the crowded hipster storefront whose product is addictive despite your barely veiled loathing for the people who hang out there. These reviews consist of elaborate narratives woven for a specific audience and with a specific purpose. They contain another element, though, Plot.

Reviews of restaurants and cafes, especially, are subject to a plotting device. Writers set up the scene with exposition, providing the necessary character background, information we will need in order to understand the state of mind of the characters when they stumble upon the excellent/poor service/food that inspired them to write. “I was out with my two children, a three- and a five-year-old, who are notoriously hard to please. A dreadful rainstorm had threatened to undo a perfect shopping trip when we found ourselves inside Pasha’s moroccan kitchen and its 31 flavors of phyllo… They even let us take home a quart of chutney ‘just for the kids’!”.

It feels to me, the sceptic, as though these reviews leapt off the pages of Penthouse “Forum”  from the eighties. The same principle applies: the ostensible purpose and audience for the communication gracefully bows out of the way so that authorship takes center stage, and story is born. But what compels a person to move from “I’ll post a quick review on UrbanSpoon because I really liked the service at that place” to “I will compose a short story; I will transform real life experience into art”? One might imagine such a writer wanting to serve the broader community by posting a very practical and handy reference tool – amounting to notes on a dining experience, in his early phase, with the intention of equipping future diners seeking good food. One can even see that for such a writer to offer a whole back story and, in a later phase, to craft a plot may aid such seekers, and possibly entertain them. But I wonder what feedback the writer receives for such work. Where does the satisfaction come from?

The artful review phenomenon is not peculiar to foodies. Having recently succumbed to the siren song of the safety razor and shaving soap, I hunted around on the internet for some goodies (product reviews of hard soaps) and was caught off guard. Writers are doing the same thing here!

“I close the bathroom door and turn on Bolero”, begins one.

“I wait a few moments, filling the room with steam, until my head swims in the lavender bouquet…” continues another.

Descriptions of lubricating the face, loading the brush, and lathering are not merely alliterative, but take on Joycean resonance.

Daily rituals of eating and shaving offer access to any writer who wants to build a story out of simple, known experiences. But, somehow, belonging to a community of writers and readers who may enjoy and appreciate the fruit of your labor feeds the desire to write, to build. A few of my own students write chapters of books which are passed among friends, who encourage them to continue the stories.

I suppose I should relax. Sure, some people are motivated to to write stories that are actually reviews. Yes, there are any number of reasons a person might want to post a review, casting doubt on its reliability. But people are having fun with writing. Lighten up, Gordon Let people try their hand at verisimilitude without criticizing their motives. Are they really so different from Montaigne?

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