My original headline for this review of Sea Fish was ‘THIS PLACE SUCKS’, but peeps wanted to tone it down.
Very few people in Sri Lankan media do bad reviews. Perhaps bad isn’t the right word, let’s say critical. This is for two reasons, I think. One is that they’re dependent on advertisers. Indeed, magazine publishers often refer to advertisers as ‘clients’, which is kinda true, but also not. Two is that it’s a small town/country and if you write/say something about a small business, the owner will hear about it and you will probably hear from them. And then I think a minor third is that some people don’t think that critically.
But why is being critical good? Well, there’s a wealth of liberal arts thought on this. Here’s Oscar Wilde, for example, (thanks Shruthi) on literary criticism:
Anybody can write a three-volumed novel. It merely requires a complete ignorance of both life and literature. The difficulty that I should fancy the reviewer feels is the difficulty of sustaining any standard. Where there is no style a standard must be impossible. The poor reviewers are apparently reduced to be the reporters of the police-court of literature, the chroniclers of the doings of the habitual criminals of art. (The Critic As Artist)
For me, it’s because it enables you to accurately gauge the world, both what’s good and what’s bad. If a source is critical then you get both higher highs and lower lows, and it gives you the freedom to move around within them critically, yourself. It is also that public criticism is closer to the private conversations we have amongst ourselves.
If you ask your friends or family for recommendations they’ll tell you what’s amazing, good, bad or unspeakably horrid. They can be wrong, but they’re saying what they think. Which you don’t really get in the public sphere, for the reasons above, plus incompetence.
Most Sri Lankan public reviews take the lines of this is the best/first/greatest ever. It’s essentially press releases. The main alternative is bald-faced slander. There’s little actual criticism. I read Colombo city guides and magazines and the line between advertisement and ‘advertorial’ and content is paper thin. Partly cause of the business model and partly cause of the culture. But I think both need to change.
I generally try to be supportive of anyone doing anyone doing anything in Sri Lanka. For a long time trying something new was risky, rare and hard and it seemed unfair to push too hard. But I think that’s changing. Post-war, we’re seeing a boom of businesses and creativity and the imperative is no longer doing something, it’s doing something awesome. It’s no longer enough to be the first this or that in Sri Lanka, people have to (and do) aspire higher than that. So there is room for criticism.
Which brings me back to what we’re doing at YAMU. We’re trying a different business model, growth first, services later, so we’re not depending on advertisers, AKA clients. We’re also naturally critical and saying what we think under our own bylines, with comments, and with the acknowledgement that there are other sources and we could be wrong. But we don’t think we’re wrong, and everyone is writing pretty much what they feel.
It’s mostly food criticism, so not as heady as what Wilde was discussing, but I think the same principles apply. What we’ve had for a long time in the city was just chronicles of the habitual criminals of service and food, and/or lists of phone numbers. On the other side, we’ve longer had a vibrant oral network of recommendations and reviews that circulate among family and friends. At YAMU we’re kinda trying to bridge that gap.
I mention this now, because recently we’ve had a spate of critical reviews. At first we just went to place we knew and loved, but now we’re expanding our range, and we’ve run into some bad experiences and meals.
For example, I had some horrendous seafood at the Sea Fish Restaurant and wrote that up. After that retch-inducing meal it was immensely satisfying, and occasionally poetic. We all tried China Doll, which we thought we’d love (great design and all), but didn’t. Savan wrote that up. Multiple people have disagreed with our assessment, but it was still our experience. Today Shruthi’s written up something on Commons, a common favorite, but one which I’ve long thought was always expensive and too often mediocre.
I think there is room for constructive criticism in Colombo/SL, and I think it’s certainly more interesting. My eyes glaze when I read most food and leisure media because – while you do get information – you have to read everything with a critical eye because it’s already so biased. You have to know who the publisher is, who the advertiser is and a lot about the scene to calibrate reality correctly. They’re not being critical, so it puts more critical weight on the reader. So we’re being critical and it’s certainly a lot more fun to write. I hope it’s also fun to read.