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Everybody Loves at Least One Critic

A.O. Scott's Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth (New York: Penguin Press, 2016)
Everybody Loves at Least One Critic

A.O. Scott, the chief film critic for The New York Times, had a problem. He had written a negative review of the famous Avengers movie of several years ago, a movie which proceeded to make $1.5B at the box office worldwide. Shortly after the review came out, Samuel L. Jackson, one of the stars of the film tweeted, “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!”

Now, neither the box office bonanza—which Scott predicted by the way in his review—nor a tweet by Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most powerful actors in Hollywood, was going to threaten the job of arguably the most respected film critic in America. But Scott realized that Jackson had asked a valid question: “I think Jackson raised a valid and vital question. …it’s always worth asking just what the job of the critic is, and how it might ACTUALLY be done” (p. 4).

This book is his answer to that question, but it is much more. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism is a plea for his readers to, in the words of a recent article by historian Molly Worthen, “stop saying ‘I feel like’” and instead “argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.” (“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’”, The New York Times, May 1, 2016, SR4). Scott does not want to stop at simple description of the job of the professional critic. He doesn’t even primarily want to justify the job of the critic as a valued member of a healthy society. He wants to argue that we are all critics, and that, if we want to think well about such things as art, pleasure, beauty and truth, we need to learn how to do criticism well.

Scott tackles this task by employing a form that is at times engaging and readable, at other times irritating and obtuse. The book has six chapters interspersed with what he calls “Dialogues”, which are set up in a question and answer format in which Scott is arguing his case…with himself. The dialogues carry much of the argument, actually, though he apparently sees them as a sort of chatty interlude between the hard stuff of the chapters. Unfortunately, what they succeed in doing is lowering the standards of the book (and he sets a very high standard of both style and substance in the chapters) and only irritating the serious reader. It’s a silly device, and the book would be much better without it.

With that caveat, however, let me say that the book contains a wealth of argument for something that is terribly missing in our world, in both Christian and non-Christian publications, both oral and written. Everyone ought to read Better Living, not just professional and aspiring critics. Scott has tried his hardest to be fair to all sides of each point he makes, while still making points and arguing for them. This is a difficult task in a world where truth is everywhere defined as subjective, a viewpoint he clearly affirms. Because truth is subtler than that, he ultimately fails, but not because of sloppiness or pointless argument. His sentences are clean and readable for the most part, and though there is quite a bit of repetition in the book, his argument generally builds sensibly toward his conclusions.

Scott starts the book with a dialogue that sets out his purpose for writing, i.e. to describe how the job of a critic ought actually to be done. In his first two chapters he deals with two ancient problems the critic has always faced: 1) How does one “criticize” a work of art? (Today we might use the word “critique”, but cf. David Foster Wallace’s critique of this use of “critique” in The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus under “critique”.) Isn’t art immune to criticism by its very nature? And 2) if it is justifiable to evaluate a piece of art, how does one avoid such criticism being hopelessly subjective?

Another dialogue on self-criticism is followed by two chapters on the history of criticism and the critic’s chief problem: like all human beings, they want to be liked but they also want their opinion to be heard. “Every child wants to hear that her finger painting is a masterpiece destined at least for the temporary pantheon of the refrigerator door. But every child also knows that some things are better than others, that being ranked and sorted is an intrinsic part of every public and worthwhile endeavor.” (p. 123)

A wealth of citations and stories from the pantheon of famous critics makes these chapters both difficult and exhilarating; Scott knows his stuff and has spent a lot of time putting it together in a workable length.

After another dialogue he entitles “Practical Criticism” in which he tells the story of how he became a critic and discusses the importance of “dissenting from the conventional wisdom” (p. 158), Scott gives us the last two chapters of the book on the all-important (for him, and, I believe, for all of us) concept of the necessity of the critic realizing that they are wrong (“But it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong.”) by which he means that critics must always understand that they “fight an unending battle against premature and permanent certainty” (p. 167). He finishes with a wide-ranging essay on the state of criticism today, discussing such things as the speed of opinions stated and discarded, resurrected and debated, on the internet, the variety of ways to make criticism a profession (not university teaching), and ending with an ode, based in the wonderful Pixar movie Ratatouille, to the critic so caring about the object he is evaluating and so well communicating that love or hate that “the boundary between art and life—and therefore the uncomfortably aligned, sometimes antagonistic roles of creator, consumer, and critic—will dissolve, along with the distinction between labor and pleasure” (p. 268).

A.O. Scott’s view of the role of criticism is not a Christian view, but it is very close to it. First, he realizes the chief sin of any critic: pride and self-importance. The closing illustration in the book discussing Anton Ego from Ratatouille is priceless in that regard. Secondly, he bravely and wisely struggles with the subjective/objective dichotomy but isn’t able to resolve it because he simply doesn’t have an answer to the modern dilemma of the humanist: Why, if we are the measure of all things, aren’t we infinite? Only Christianity with its anthropology of the dual nature of man—bearing the imago dei yet finite—has a real answer to this dilemma. And the way this anthropology plays out in the field of criticism is this: we as human beings strive toward perfection, knowing it is there in God, but never able to reach it because of our finitude. We add in another factor in this life: our fallenness, which makes our strivings less than the joy they should be, harder than they would have been if we had never fallen, and clouded because the fall affected all of our being, the cognitive as well as the spiritual.

Scott buys into much of this: the eternal imperfection of the critic, the importance of striving toward perfection, the humility that these truths should build into our criticism. But he doesn’t have an ultimate reason to practice criticism other than he can’t help himself, that it is somehow built into our DNA by evolution or whatnot. He can’t really justify the act of criticism in the way the Christian can, i.e. because it fits into the calling of every one of us to seek the perfect, even though we cannot attain it. And he doesn’t have a good basis for condemning the act of not criticizing as the Christian does since we are called to judge all things in order that we might affirm the good and deny the bad (1 Cor 2:15).

So our criticism is not perfect, perhaps not even right, but should be considered to be an objective entity, not just subjective opinion. Trained critics, experienced critics should be listened to, though it is perfectly right for all of us to accept or reject them as we desire since our response to them is not simply objective but subjective as well. And the balancing factors of the critic’s subjectivity and finitude ought also to enter into the discussion of their rightness or not since no one is an expert in every field. For example, some might trust my theological evaluations of the themes of an obviously religious movie—The Passion of the Christ comes to mind—in a review of that movie more than they would A.O. Scott’s, while trusting everything else he says about the movie more than they do my criticism. We should respect critics generally more than we often do because of their education and/or their experience; Scott deserves more respect than me because of his training and his experience generally. However, that doesn’t mean he’s always right for two reasons: 1) humans make mistakes and 2) he may not treat the evidence for his views as well as he perhaps should. We, the readers, must decide whether he is mistaken or biased or not, and we have that right at any time.

However,—and this is a big “However”—it is incumbent upon us to realize that our judgments then become our rejoinder to the critic in what should be recognized as a conversation. The internet has made possible in recent years what was only possible through much slower and more difficult means before: we now can actually enter into a conversation with a critical review or essay by writing a comment or asking a question in what sometimes can be almost real time, as if the person were in the room with us and we were having a real conversation.

But we should have always been doing this in our own minds, and indeed in some sense always have, whether we consciously recognized it or not, i.e. carrying on a conversation between the author/critic and us. This is the essence of good reading. Why don’t we just admit it and then embrace it? Everybody is a critic, and that is OK.

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