Saturday, December 01, 2012

Blazing Critics

Recently, the question of how critical a reviewer should be was raised by Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's Times Square restaurant.  In that review, Wells eviscerates everything about the restaurant.  For example, he asks Mr. Fieri: 
"Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?" 
Needless to say, Mr. Fieri was not pleased and he fired back, alleging that Wells had ulterior motives.  The internets were sent a twitter about the "feud" and this ultimately led to a piece by the Times Public Editor defending the snarky review - or the "all guns blazing" review.  In her defense, rather than just offer that Mr. Wells, as a critic, had a duty to candidly review Mr. Fieri's resturant, the editor helpfully collected other such examples of "classic" all-guns blazing reviews.  
We discuss one one, well known, Jewish example here
But, perhaps the most well known example of a candid review is that of Professor H. Soloveitchik's review of Peter J. Haas in AJS, 24:2 (1999) 343-57 ($).  Indeed, Soloveitchik's review was referenced in the movie Footnote, where a doctoral student is the stand in for Haas and is berated with a version of  "[o]ur author is apparently unaware of the writings of Yitzhak Baer, Salo Baron, Eliezer Bashan, H.H. Ben-Sasson, Menahem Ben-Sasson, Reuven Bonfil, and Mordechai Bruer, to mention only historians whose names begin with B."  344.  
Soloveitchik has another recent "all guns blazing" review worth mentioning.  This one, published in the Jewish Review of Books, where he reviews ($) Tayla Fishman's award winning, People of the Book.  To be fair, it appears that Soloveitchik long ago apprised Fishman of his views and warned her that he would review her book and air his views to the world.  Soloveitchik explains that he is "thanked for reading a draft of one chapter."  But, he continues that based upon that reading he "strongly urged Dr. Fishman" that she should "not publish and further informed her that as her writing would mislead English-speaking readers, most of whom know nothing about rabbinics" and thus he "would feel obligated to review the book."  The substance of the review argues that Fishman displays not even a basic familiarity with the Tosefot, the focus of her book.  Obviously, the whole review is worth reading, but Soloveitchik's opinion is readily gleaned by his explanation as to the futility in even attempting to reconstruct where Fishman's  misunderstandings lead her astray.  After spending much time on this endeavor he had the epiphany that she was not just misunderstanding the texts because "misunderstanding requires partial understanding." Consequently, he offers, "if this fractional comprehension is lacking, there are no parameters limiting the interpretation; the meaning of the source will then be whatever the writer wishes it to mean, or, absent this bias, whatever comes to mind."     

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