Tuesday, November 09, 2010

ARTICLE: The Future/Death of Food Writing; A hastily written piece of rant-trash

For anyone that actually follows this blog with any interest (ed: there is no one, I checked the stats) you may have noticed an increased focus on the blog in the last couple of months. See... I care. I care about food. And I like to write. Which means that I can about food writing. So I do it. Right?

But I don’t do things by half measures. When I do something, I want to do it well. So I was sitting around, thinking on how to approach food writing—how to do it brilliantly. What I came to realise is that food writing is pretty much doomed.

People have changed since newspapers started adding food reviews to their papers. Social media has completely changed the face of non-news media. If we want to find out about a new restaurant or bar that opened recently, do we wait for a publication to publish a review? Hell naw. We hit up blogs, Twitter, Google, whatever. We have a veritable dossier of information on every new place that opens before even having taking a bite or a sip.

And this media doesn’t just have the tired old 500 word column. No. It has hi definition photos taken on a 10 megapixel digital SLR camera. And, fuck it, I’m viewing it on a 20 inch LCD screen over a band that can only be described as BROAD.

All within the first week of a new place opening, if it’s in the right location (or reaches out to enough people willing to give it a write-up).

How does traditional food writing survive? Through bloody good food writing? Get the Pulizter ready. Maybe not. (hold the Pulitzer)

Because blogging appears to have killed the linguistic star. Such is the proliferation of food writing (namely restaurant reviews) that entire phrases can be killed in a week. How many times have we heard phrases like “meltingly tender” or “sinfully rich”? Back in the days of print media we could at least wait a week before the next restaurant review appeared and the reviewer pulled out their tired old formula. But now...

Now, in the age of instant gratification, you can sign up to so many avenues of social media that you can get a dozen people describing the very same dish in the space of just a week. How many ways are there to describe the same thing? The accountants inside us say that there is only one way to describe something: the right way. The artist inside us says that there are many ways to describe it. The public ready the description of the item says that there is but a few ways of describing something in a way that keeps them coming back.

A post happened on the internet a few days ago, on The Food Blog. The question was asked: how would you describe a steak?

The answer from every proper, published, food writer? The same way as each other.

The answer from nearly every food blogger? The same way as the food writer, but not as good, but with more pictures so it’s cool, right?

Proper food writers, when they’re really firing, are poetic. They’re moving. They DRIVE you to the food with language so evocative you can almost taste it. But that’s only when they’re firing. And how evocative can you be when language is set in stone? There are only so many terms and phrases that can be used. So the question remains: how do you describe a steak, having to be poetic, moving, descriptive and critical, yet moving?

But proper food writers... they’re following a formula, aren’t they? The Modern Day Food Writing Formula (TM) of beginning with a non-restaurant related phrase (I had to do a review, but my cat was asking for food), writing your review about the food, throwing in some facts, ending with a callback to the non-restaurant related phrase (this place left me purring for more). It’s just as predictable as the blog next door that posts photos of every course and describes every course as good.

Hypothetical. You—a proper food writer—describe it well. You describe a steak so perfectly (and originally) that people can identify with it and, most importantly, they can identify with it. They can taste it. They feel the heady combination of oil and fat and blood run down the side of their mouth reading your review. Something deep inside them aches to bring that feeling to reality by actually visiting that place.

Food bloggers read your review. They love it. They process the way you wrote that review. Elements of it permeate that horrible beast known to some as the “Blogosphere”.

When was the last time you heard the phrase "gossimer-thin" in real life? Never. When was the last time you saw it in a restaurant review? Last week? A proper writer used that term once. Then it proliferated.

Your description has lost all punch. Over time it’s lost all meaning, as the phrase is pulled in hundreds of directions. And the food bloggers aren’t doing too well either. Their readers are getting a sort of phrase fatigue from reading the same descriptor over and over; from a myriad of sources. But the pictures keep them happy.

But can pictures keep people happy for long enough?

Every blog is in competition with the other. The internet is not aware of the term “brand loyalty”. If you slip up for long enough, you lose your readership. At the moment they like you because you review a lot of places, you make stuff they want to make and (most importantly) you take a lot of pictures (3D, right?). But you slack off and you’re gone.

So where does food writing go? Good writers struggle to win because they aren’t writing as frequently as bloggers. Bloggers can’t win because they’re nothing but vessels for pictures and information. And they’re just as susceptible to “cliché fatigue” as a published food author.

Or maybe it doesn’t matter.

Writers write for the masses—for mass adulation. Our culture of instant gratification has told us to seek that. And maybe writing at a tolerable level and having lots of pictures is enough for that.

But with food writing gaining an increasing presence amongst “traditional” writing can we settle for that? Sure, the cream will rise to the top, but should we settle for cream rising above mediocrity?

So maybe it does matter.

But the challenge now, as I see it, is for someone to capture the future of food writing. That person will have the ability of being able to review places en masse without growing stale. Most importantly, they’ll be able to describe a great steak in a way that won’t bore us.

The challenge is to use the current media landscape to tap into the zeitgeist of people reading about food and deliver both a truly exceptional media experience, and truly exceptional writing. About that topic which so many of us love: food.


Fouad @ The Food Blog said...

Recently, I thought the internet has stopped being worth browsing. And for a while, all I could see was rubbish. Then, I saw your blog, and I thought it was "good". That's one site that is worth browsing! (Get it? I tied it back to the first sentence).

Jobe said...

Dear Fouad,
Amazing writing. You could possibly have a future in food writing there. Just work on not describing websites as "good". Ugh. I'm so sick of it. Everyone calls websites "good" these days. There are so many other words you can use!