When you are a critic, you often find yourself listening to other people’s opinions on how, ideally, a critic ought to ply her trade. It’s wisest to keep a straight face and avoid explaining that the answer to this is often relative, depending on the platform. At the New Yorker, for example, the critics are essayists first and foremost. If they brandish fierce prejudices or, as in the case of Anthony Lane, are sometimes willing to sacrifice information on the altar of witticism, so much the better: That’s what New Yorker critics do. Editorially, their performance takes precedence over the works they write about.
A film critic at the New York Times, on the other hand, is arguably the film critic of record for the nation and therefore has a lot less wiggle room. His reviews are expected to be a pleasure to read, accurate, fair, pertinent, informed, open-minded, authoritative, and addressed to the interests of a wide readership. Is there any space amid all those imperatives to breathe, let alone write? Apparently so, in the case of co-chief film critic A.O. Scott, and space enough to produce a book about it, as well—one that embodies all of the aforementioned qualities, except, possibly, the last.
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth is Scott’s defense of his art, for art is what he declares criticism to be. I can already hear the howls of outrage at that claim. But as Scott (with whom, along with most of the other critics I’ll mention here, I’m friendly) points out, the two activities cannot be disentangled. “Criticism is art’s late-born twin,” he writes. “They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.” Some of us may cling to the fantasy of the artist as a lone, Promethean genius on a mountaintop whose work speaks only to and for the ages, but most art is at least partly a response, like criticism, to other art. Artists measure their work against that of other artists, and critics (often reputed to care too much about the aesthetic horse race) also judge art by the standard of life. Art is not a monologue but a conversation—and, as Scott himself likes to put it, “the essence of criticism is conversation.”
I’d add that all art takes some ordinary human activity or diversion—singing, dancing, telling stories, making things—and concentrates it, converts it into something more meaningful, an end in itself. Criticism does this with the discussions we are always having about the art we make (and consume). As with most acts of human creation, you’re less likely to do it well if you spend too much time thinking of it as art. Self-importance is the enemy of significance, and no one can be more painfully aware of this paradox than a critic, which explains why Better Living Through Criticism is such a curiously flitting book. Scott begins with a bold assertion (“criticism, far from being a minor, petty, secondary art, is in fact larger than the others”) and then dances back into self-deprecation and disclaimers. Recalling his youthful stabs at poetry and fiction, he blames his inability to write the sort of idea-driven work he aspired to on “shallowness, maybe. Lack of nerve. Insufficient talent.”
The main form this self-critique takes in Better Living Through Criticism is a series of dialogues, in which Scott gets grilled by a skeptical version of himself. Sometimes the questioner pins his subject to the wall—“What are critics good for?”; “It takes no effort at all to peg you, my friend, as a Gen-X baby in the throes of middle age, flailing between the Kubler-Ross stages of denial and acceptance as you mourn your lost youth” —and sometimes he expounds on one of Scott’s points, explaining that “a vital source of critical energy” is the “precritical capacity for simple delight, the ability to be moved without thinking.”
This device, of course, furthers Scott’s idea that criticism is a conversation, even when it’s just a conversation with yourself, but it also manifests his central critical ethos, which is dialectical. Scott doesn’t have a “line,” or at least not in the way that, say, James Wood, the New Yorker’s current literary critic and foremost champion of novelistic realism, does. Even when Scott writes an apparently forceful essay, such as “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” published in the New York Times Magazine in 2014, the vector of his argument can be maddeningly hard to map. That’s because Scott seems to believe that the ideal condition of a culture is to be in a state of churn or flux, in which the push in one direction—toward, say, the idea that art ought to be relentlessly innovative—meets robust challenge on behalf of the opposite—toward, say, the celebration of fundamentals and tradition.
This model leads Scott to his most striking observation, which is that not only are good critics often wrong but “it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong.” Let’s say you argue, to take one classic example, that reprehensible themes and ideas can invalidate a technically masterful work of art. (The films of Leni Riefenstahl serve as the perfect example here.) This approach, while legitimate, is also inevitably reductive, because no one really wants to see art diminished to propaganda for correct ideas and behavior. A response—for example, the “art for art’s sake” ethos of late 19th-century English aestheticism—will often rise up to assert that art is all about the execution, and morals be damned. This rhythm of call and response forms what Scott describes as “a twisted, looping, stutter-stepping, incomplete path toward the truth.” Both sides of the form vs. content debate are right, and both are wrong. A critic needs to take a side or we’ll never get anywhere, but taking a side also means willfully stepping into error.
Unless, I guess, you are A.O. Scott, and your side is that all sides are equally right, wrong, and essential. For what it’s worth, I agree with him on this impossible and self-contradicting position, which, if we’re honest, is par for the course in conversations about culture. Early in Better Living Through Criticism, Scott’s imaginary interlocutor asks if the book itself isn’t just an elaborate bid “to settle a score with Samuel L. Jackson.” In the Times, Scott described the 2012 movie The Avengers (in which Jackson performed) as “a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” Jackson objected on both Twitter and in an interview with the Huffington Post, complaining that there was no need to “intellectualize” the movie or to “say something that’s fucked-up about a piece of bullshit pop culture that really is good—The Avengers is a fucking great movie.”
As Scott observes, there’s a double standard at work here, one that professional critics of pop culture will find all too familiar. Jackson “places The Avengers simultaneously beneath criticism (‘a piece of bullshit pop culture’) and beyond it (‘a fucking great movie’).” You can see a similarly muddled argument coming from fans of other, more stigmatized genres than action movies, whether their jam be romance novels or video games. They insist at once that outside arbiters of artistic merit should not automatically dismiss their favorite form, but they bristle when anyone applies a nonfannish level of scrutiny to it. Gamers will bemoan that video games aren’t recognized as a significant cultural form with a potential for greatness, then melt down when games are held to the standards that come with claims to cultural significance. “Games are art,” they say, but also, “lighten up, it’s just a game.”
This maneuver should suggest to any observer that what lies at the heart of most popular beefs with critics isn’t actually the stuff of the considered argumentation you’ll find in Better Living Through Criticism. Most considered thinkers don’t take exception to criticism per se—which is not surprising, given how closely considered thinking and good criticism are linked. Scott seems instead to be defending his profession against a more ad hoc volley of assaults, against the kinds of emails and social-media scoldings that prominent critics and their editors routinely get. Among the most common accusations: You’re just jealous; What gives you the right?; You should make your own movie instead of going around slamming other people’s life’s work; You just didn’t get it; How can you be so mean?; You’re just a shill for big publishers/movie studios/record companies; You’re a snob; What kind of vampiric job is yours, anyway? Any working critic with a reasonably decent readership has heard all of it many times, from both creators and fans.
Unlike Scott, however, I can’t receive any of these bogus provocations as sincere inquiries into the nature and purpose of criticism, for one simple reason: Such questions instantly evaporate the moment the reader agrees with the critic. If Scott had trumpeted The Avengers as a masterpiece, Jackson would never have challenged his opinion. If you loved Bill Clegg’s 2015 novel Did You Ever Have a Family?, you might respond to Dwight Garner’s rain-of-fire take on it in the Times by accusing the critic of pursuing a personal grudge. (I heard this exact charge from a couple of friends who, unsurprisingly, loved the novel.) But if you’re, say, a dissenter from the general enthusiasm for Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, then you would greet a scathing review like Daniel Mendelsohn’s in the New York Review of Books as the work of a fearless and welcome truth-teller. How the vast majority of people feel about critics is entirely dependent on how the critics make them feel about themselves and their own judgments.
Furthermore, criticism needs no defending. It’s a job because people (sometimes) pay you to do it, and many more people pay attention to it. Write whatever you want to me about the irrelevance and superfluity of critics when you’re complaining that my top-10 list left off your favorite novel; you’ve just proved you care enough about critics to gripe to and about one. People who really believe that “just a movie” or “just a game” requires no critical scrutiny would not be reading a review of one. People convinced that critics are out-of-touch snoots don’t care about top-10 lists. This is not to say that there aren’t some people who have no use for critics. There are, without a doubt. But people like that don’t bother to dispute the critic’s right to practice her art, and they don’t, sadly, read books on the purpose and uses of criticism. They just look at you bemusedly after asking your profession at dinner parties and change the subject. Fortunately for Scott (and me), there aren’t too many of those.
Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott. The Penguin Press.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.