It’s not clear why, exactly, A.O. Scott wrote Better Living Through Criticism in the first place. It seems like the sort of thing the lead film reviewer at the New York Times ought to do, I guess. But, as Leon Wieseltier’s dead-on and damning review makes clear, Scott doesn’t have any particular critical position, never mind a thesis, to defend. The book’s subtitle, How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, turns out to be a joke: of course no one can tell you these things, or at least Scott doesn’t seem to think one should. He’s perfectly comfortable praising or trashing an individual film, as you can see in his reviews on any given day in the Times, but when it comes to stating his working principles as a critic, he retreats.
Scott finds that two major critical positions, elitism and populism, turn out to be the same: “The idea of critical authority and the ideal of common knowledge are not in competition, but are rather the antithetical expressions of a single impulse toward comprehensive judgment, toward an integral aesthetic experience, the achievement of which would eliminate the need for critics altogether.” This sounds nice, but its strategy is to nullify the difference between meaningful critical attitudes. And it’s this discomfort toward the disagreements that occur when critics take concrete positions on art that they are willing to defend that is a problem for the rest of Scott’s book.
Better Living Through Criticism constantly performs this anxiety over disagreement, and particularly about being on the wrong side of disagreement. Over time, Scott tells us, “You are guaranteed to be wrong,” proven wrong by changing tastes, which come to laud the movie you trashed in print, proven wrong by history, which now views that delightful comedy you reviewed favorably as a paragon of fascist cinema, your opinion fossilizes, turns to dust, and so on. Times change, tastes change, critics can only accept it. That’s good practical advice for a working critic, but terrible advice if you happen to be writing a book about the actual practice of criticism. What the reader wants from a book like Scott’s, what its subtitle seems to view as an ironic impossibility, is a book of ideas and methods that have the chutzpah to claim critical authority for themselves, to tell you why you should believe them, and to anticipate and eviscerate any argument that says it ain’t so.
But it’s almost as though Scott feels he doesn’t have the authority to make such claims — then why write the book? Several sections are written as dialogs between Scott and some interlocutor (modeled, Scott tells us, on David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men”), presumably his own nagging voice of self-criticism and doubt. In them he is forever offering qualifications and revisions, telling us, “Of course, we’re all determined beings, made by circumstances beyond our control. But we’re also changeable creatures, highly susceptible to the influence of accident, free agents with the power to invent ourselves.” The formation of critical judgment is equal parts nature and nurture, sure. But surely a book like this ought to offer some thoughts as to how the practice of criticism can identify and, to some extent, ground our unknowing suspension between the tastes we absorb by osmosis and those we cultivate, to make conscious and explicit the unacknowledged and implicit forms we struggle to see in the objects before us and which exert power over our thoughts and beliefs. Scott’s book opts out of the difficult work of hewing knowledge from uncertainty. Criticism begins in doubt, but the point is to overcome it, not enshrine it.