Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Jay Rayner: A Guardian Masterclass

"Do I feel threatened by bloggers? Only if they're better than me."

No one has to read a single word I write. If there were a journalistic mantra it should be this. And Jay Rayner lives by it. After all, he's in the business of "selling newspapers" and if people stop reading he's out of a job.  

So what do you need to know about Mr Rayner, tonight's speaker at The Guardian Masterclass - Choosing your words: the craft of good writing? Well, he doesn't like it when writers ask questions at the start of sentences: a journalist "should answer the questions not ask them". And he probably wouldn't like the clusmy nature in which it was phrased. Oops. Better start again.

Jay Rayner is a tall, imposing man and strides across the stage at Salford University like a man who yearned in his youth to tread the boards. He's got a voice made for oratory, delivered with such confidence that he might make an actor yet. Perhaps all those TV appearances have taught him something. And with the anecdotal references to Roger Alton, former editor at The Observer, and some ironic posturing he's pretty funny too. Not just a pretty face as the ladies at mumsnet would have you believe.  

Look past the Gallic profile, luscious locks and garish shirts and there stands a man who has worked hard to earn his right to address the audience on 'the craft of good writing'. Eager to step out from his mother's shadow (journalist Claire Rayner, best known as an agony aunt to the nation) and ambitious to make it as a writer on his own terms, he became editor of his university paper, went on to work for The Observer and was named Young Journalist of the Year in 1992. Not bad credentials eh? And that doesn't take into account the subsequent 20 years of journalism.  

By his own admission, Rayner didn't set out to become a food critic. As his version of events goes, the position of restaurant critic at The Observer came up and he expressed a desire to do it. Right place, right time, I guess. Perhaps it is for this reason that I've seen many a commentator question Mr Rayner's credibility as a restaurant reviewer. What does he know about food? Those people are missing the point: Jay Rayner is not really a food critic and his reviews aren't really about food. Yes, he gets to dine at some of the nation's best restaurants; but what he gets paid to do is write. And write well, he does. He's said it before but it bears repeating: "People don't read my reviews to find out whether the lamb was overcooked or the fish was raw." 

You could, if you're a food blogger, hate Jay Rayner on principle. But you shouldn't. Some will take his comments about blogging as offensive; but in fact they are a challenge. A challenge to write a better story.  The moral of the evening was:  given that the world and his wife have an opinion and a means to voice it, your opinion needs to be well-crafted otherwise it won't get heard. At least not in the world of journalism. "Pick 100 people off the street and I can guarantee you'll only find 1 or 2 genuinely good writers," Rayner claims.  That's all assuming you want to be a writer or have your opinion taken seriously. If you've got no pretensions to be a food critic and it's all a bit of fun, then I guess Jay should lay off.

However, there is no reason why a blog can't become something more than just a blog. And no reason to dismiss all blogging as a lesser form of 'proper journalism'. The blog has a place in the hierarchy. To think Manchester Confidential started out as a blog, Mark Garner confessed in a candid interview for the purposes of the masterclass. For some, myself included, a blog is a way to hone the art of writing, in the hope one day of creating praise-worthy prose. Jay Rayner has had a lot of practice since he started out, over two decades ago. And there's something we could all learn from him.