“A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word,” wrote Oscar Wilde in his great essay “The Critic as Artist.” “It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless.”
A.O. Scott would agree. Indeed, Scott’s new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, frequently employs Wilde’s dialogue form (borrowed from Plato, of course): a skeptical interlocutor questions the author about everything from the battle between art and commerce to how Anton Ego in the movie Ratatouille serves as the perfect emblem of the modern critic. And while Scott writes primarily about film for the New York Times, his book discusses poetry by Rilke and Larkin and Keats, the novels of Elena Ferrante, the work of Victorian-era critics such as Arnold, Pater, and Wilde — and just about anything else he finds worthy of extended analysis.
However, where Wilde is constantly provocative and teaches through outrageous paradoxes, Scott assumes a more reasonable tone and is primarily concerned with unpacking the apparent inconsistencies of his profession. In an essay titled “The Trouble with Critics,” he argues that anyone who makes an aesthetic judgment faces essentially the same “state of internal antagonism — scapegoat and paragon, scold and saint, id and superego” — as the professional critic. The critic, therefore, is like any of us: “a creature of paradox, at once superfluous and ubiquitous, indispensible and useless, to be trusted and reviled.”
According to Scott, Better Living Through Criticism was written partly in response to the democratization of criticism and the now-dominant assumption that popular culture is a worthy subject of serious study. Yet Scott, who argues that “being ranked and sorted is an intrinsic part of every public and worthwhile endeavor,” can’t help but feel a longing for a time when the critic was “able to assume an audience, a tradition, a canon of works and standards,” where one compared “apples to apples, addressing a public of apple eaters.” Yet in the very next sentence, he acknowledges, “Such a world has never existed, of course, but a great deal of criticism — and the criticism of criticism — seems predicated on the belief that it does, or the wish that it would.”
Apparently unsolvable conundrums such as these are at the heart of the book, and Scott is deft at teasing out their contradictions. In another chapter, “The End of Criticism,” he looks at the symbiotic relationship between critics and corporate marketing: Criticism “has to be a public act, something you’re invited to do when something is submitted for your approval (or disdain). Very little happens in the world without some kind of publicity, without it being known, promoted, hyped, whatever. So if criticism can be the corrective to that hype, it might also be true that the hype is the precondition for criticism.” Self-justifying? Sure. Skillfully argued? Absolutely.
In the age of Internet (and Twitter and Instagram) reviews, when anyone who can type can also set up shop as a critic, Better Living Through Criticism demonstrates that style and substance still matter, and that there is a significant difference between those who turn to criticism as a late-night hobby and those for whom it is a craft and a calling.