New York Times film critic A.O. Scott offers a number of definitions for criticism in his new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. In one early chapter, he describes it as a process of “loving demystification.” Elsewhere he writes, “It’s the job of art to free our minds, and the task of criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom.” Later, he adds the highly distilled, harder-than-it-sounds dictum: “[D]escribe what you see; tell us if it’s any good.”
In a sense, the whole book is one big, provocative, often funny definition of criticism that hops from Rainer Maria Rilke to Chuck Berry to Teju Cole’s novel Open City to Yelp to countless other thinkers and cultural artifacts. (The book’s index, from “Abramović, Marina” to “Zuckerberg, Mark,” is six and a half pages long.)
Scott pulls from an array of genres to complete the task. On some pages, the book is a philosophical treatise asking big questions like, “How do we know what we know? Why do we feel what we feel?” On others, we ride shotgun inside his mind as he walks through the Louvre, pondering all of the layers of the place’s meaning. Interspersed with these chapters are self-interviews that read like modern Platonic dialogues seasoned with bits of memoir and odes to Pixar films. And, by book’s end, aspiring critics even find a bit of how-to wisdom. “To resort to the supremely empty word ‘compelling,’” Scott writes in a memorable anti-adjective riff, “is to confess that you have nothing to say.”
In short, Better Living is a book you should read if you want to feel like you’re talking about art and ideas with a low-key, yet scary-smart, guy who seems to have heard every record, read every book, pondered every painting, and seen every movie ever released. And The Millions did just that, last week, when we spoke with Scott over the phone.
The Millions: So, is this your debut book?
A.O. Scott: It is, indeed. I have contributed to a few books. I edited a collection of essays by Mary McCarthy some time ago, but this is the first book I’ve actually written and published.
TM: I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit, because I remember — and I went back and checked the time, it was 10 years ago — you wrote a piece about novels in The Times that ended with a note that said, “He is writing a book on the American novel since World War II.” I don’t want to bring up a sore spot but…
AOS: No, it’s fine. [Laughing]
TM: Is that book still in the works?
AOS: Uh, no. Before I started working at The Times, I was a book critic. And I kind of had this very grand idea, because no one had done it; no one had written, I thought, written a kind of big, sweeping, synthetic, critical, popular book about the American novel after the Second World War. So, being kind of young and arrogant and stupid, I thought I could do it.
And I was working on the proposal and getting it ready, and then I got this job at The Times, sort of by surprise. And being young and arrogant and stupid, I figured, “Oh, no problem. I can be a film critic in the morning and write the definitive history of the American novel since World War II in the afternoon.” And it didn’t really work out. I sort of kept at it, as much as I could, for as long as I could, but at a certain point I had to put it aside. And the publisher was very, very patient for a long time, and then, at a certain point, they were just like, “Look, this is probably not going to happen.” So I’ve moved on from that. But for a long time, yes, it was in my bio and you’re not the first or the last person to ask, “Hey, what about that book?”
TM: I don’t mean to be That Guy who says, “How’s that book coming along?” But, thankfully, we have a great new book we can talk about. And my first question is kind of a loaded question, given what you do and the subject of this book: have you been reading the reviews?
AOS: I’ve been reading all of the reviews. I sort of made a vow that it would be very hypocritical of me to avoid the reviews. I’ve been dishing it out for 20 years or more, in various ways, so I’d better be able to take it. And I have to say I have really enjoyed reading the reviews, including the less glowing reviews. I mean, it’s very nice to read a review like Michael Wood’s that appeared in The New York Times, which I was not tipped off about. It was great to read that in the paper.
But it’s also been really interesting to me to read some of the other, less glowing ones. Because I find that this is a book that — it’s about criticism, so I was hoping all along, in a way, that critics would have something to say about it. And I kind of suspected that a number of them — because we all do it in our own different ways, and have different ideas about how it should be done — that a lot of my colleagues would take issue with it.
TM: Let’s go back to the beginning. Why write this book?
AOS: Well, I’d been thinking about it for a long time, obviously. It’s in my nature to reflect on what I do. And over the years, I’ve written a couple pieces — as I think a lot of critics do — every once in a while, you’ll write an essay either defending what you do from people who complain about critics or trying to explain what critics do, or, as often is the case, complaining about other critics and how they do it wrong. But I hadn’t really thought about it comprehensively.
[And] I think what sparked it was there was a moment around 2010, 2011, which I think was one of many moments of kind of digital triumphalism, where print was collapsing, newspapers were going under right and left, and there was all of this cool stuff coming up. Social media was really on the rise and there were all of these powerful algorithms and there were sites like Yelp and there were Amazon reviews and there was user-generated content. And there was Twitter. And there was Facebook. And there was a certain amount being written and said about, “Well, this means that we don’t needs critics. Critics are finally obsolete. We don’t need people from ivory towers bossing us around and telling us what to like. We’re all just going to like what we like and we’ll hit the ‘Like’ button and share it with our friends. And we’ll do our own thing. We’ll be our own critics.”
And I thought, “Well, that’s really interesting.” I wondered if that was true. I thought, “Well, am I the last of the breed on my way out? Is this thing that I’ve enjoyed doing so much, that’s sort of been my vocation and my job — is that over?” So I kind of sat down to try to think about that and to try to think about it in as unprejudiced way as I could. Not to be just defensive and not say, “Oh, all you people on the Internet are…idiots. Who gave you the right to have these opinions?”
I didn’t want to just be defending my job and its prerogatives. But I wanted to explain, first of all to myself, what criticism was. Where does it come from? Why does it exist? Why do people do it? How is it a job? How is it something other than a job? How is it something that exists independently of the careers and professions of people like me?
TM: And then Samuel L. Jackson picked a fight with you.
AOS: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was pretty early. I had been working on this I guess for about a year. And it was a great gift. Because one of the things I’d been thinking about was why people seem to hate critics so much. Because you hear it a lot, if you review stuff, whatever you review, people get mad at you and people want you to go away. And people think you’re ruining their fun or you’re just some kind of egghead spoilsport raining on everyone’s parade.
So I wrote a review of The Avengers. And it was actually not an entirely negative review, by any means. It was, I thought, very measured and balanced and fair. And I really like the cast of that movie a lot, including Samuel L. Jackson. But it was also…I was complaining about the blockbuster imperative and the way that all of these movies, that whatever talent or wit or intelligence or originality that they seem to have often seems kind of compromised by the need to make them these big tent pole, giant-sized-blockbuster, globally profitable movies. And Samuel L. Jackson went on Twitter and said, “Avengers fans, we need to find A.O. Scott a new job — one he can actually do.” Which I thought was very funny. Because, I’d been thinking about it, [while] researching and starting to write this book, “Well, what is my job? How does one actually do it?”
And so I tweeted something back and it turned into one of those little Twitter tempests. Which are always hilarious. For about 12 hours, everyone is obsessed about it. And entertainment writers are writing about it. “Oh! A.O. Scott and Samuel L. Jackson!” And then it sort of moves on and people forget about it.
Interestingly, he didn’t forget about it. He came back in an interview like six months later, in The Huffington Post to elaborate on his problems with me and my review and with how critics, in his view, don’t get movies like The Avengers. And that was very useful to me, too. That really gave me material to work with and kind of helped me to think about and to write about, “Well, what is the nature of the subject? What is the tension between fans and critics? Or between artists and critics? What is the problem with thinking hard about popular culture?”
TM: That strain of hating critics and the idea of “There have never been any statues erected for critics” is strong in our culture, and you talk about it in the book. But I can think of at least one person who bucked the trend, and I know he’s someone you knew, because you appeared in the documentary about him. And that was Roger Ebert, who was perhaps the most beloved critic our culture has seen. What did people love so much about him, do you think?
AOS: It’s fascinating how that happened. And I’m not sure he was always loved. I think he grew into that and the audience grew to appreciate him over the years. And I think it’s partly because Roger was both — and I don’t think any other critic, maybe, has done this quite as well — he was both an extremely sophisticated and intelligent and knowledgeable judge and analyst of movies. I mean, he knew more about film history, more about cinematic form, more about how movies work than whole faculties at film departments in universities. He could have taught any course on film at any university. And he sometimes did.
But he was also a thoroughly democratic — small “d” — person. He had this kind of Midwestern, populist, public-spirited ethic. He never left the Chicago Sun-Times. He certainly didn’t need that salary after his TV show took off. He could have gone to any newspaper or magazine in the country. But he stayed at the Sun-Times, which is a blue-collar paper in Chicago. And he wrote in very plain, accessible language. And he never condescended to readers. And he never dumbed down his ideas.
People know him from television. He was a wonderful television personality. But if you read his writing, you see the open-mindedness and the generosity of spirit and the humanism, the feeling like he’s a person talking to you. He saw this movie, you saw this movie, and you’re having a conversation about it. He embodied that idea of criticism, which for me is a very, very attractive and important one, better than anyone else.
And I think it’s interesting when you look back at the film critics of the past, there are certainly giant and important figures. People talk about Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris as certainly the big ones of the ’60s and ’70s. I think of that period of the later 20th century, he turned out to be the giant. He turned out to be the one who really figured how to write with maximum intelligence and literary acumen about this popular art form that everybody loves.
TM: I recently saw Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, and he dedicated the movie to him! It’s like the inverse of your Samuel L. Jackson feud. It’s almost unimaginable.
AOS: It is. When Roger died, I went on Charlie Rose to talk about him with Dana Stevens, the film critic from Slate, and Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog was there by video feed from Los Angeles — he was this kind of giant floating head in the Charlie Rose studio. And he was talking about, in a classic Werner Herzog way, about how Roger Ebert was a “soldier of cinema” and a “warrior for ecstatic truth.” And I thought, “Well, yeah. You know, that’s about right.”
TM: The title of your book suggests almost a kind of self-help impulse. How can criticism — either consuming it or producing it — make our lives better?
AOS: There is a self-help component. It’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But not entirely. And I think that what I’m arguing for, what I’m arguing that criticism provides or that criticism is, is a more thorough and thoughtful and open-minded engagement with our own experience, beginning — and particularly in this book — with our experience of works of art and products of culture.
These things are very powerful and complicated and sometimes mysterious vessels of meaning and emotion and products of human intention, and we need to take them seriously. We need to take our own experiences and our own pleasures seriously. We need to learn, I think, to think outside our own prejudices and to open our minds and our senses to what the world has to offer.
And I guess what I think of criticism as really being is that kind of thinking, that approach to experience, that approach to life. It’s different from — because art is different from — politics or morality or religion or any of these other things. But it is one of the things, one of the modes of expression and experience, that fulfills our lives.
TM: And, at the same time, the book is very good about telling people how much they are already doing criticism in their everyday lives.
AOS: For me, criticism starts with the conversation that you have about your experience. So, it can be a conversation in your head, or a literal conversation with other people. But I always think for me, movie criticism, long before I was a professional movie critic, [was] the experience of going to a movie with your friends and then arguing about it in the coffee shop or the bar afterwards. Or, in less pleasant scenarios, getting in a huge fight with your date about what a good movie is about. [Laughs.] That’s criticism.
When we take things seriously and react to them and think about what happened to us: Why do you love this song? Why do you play it over and over and over again? How are these things so meaningful to us? When you binge-watch a certain television show and you can’t stop thinking about it and talking about it and you go online and read the recaps. Or you go on Facebook with your friends and try to hash out, “What did that episode mean?” “What happened?” Or the kind of cliché of the “water cooler conversation.” That’s criticism. We’re doing it. It’s kind of wired into us. Something happens — we see something, we feel something — we want to make sense about it. We want to talk about it.
TM: In a recent Times piece that’s adapted from the book, you wrote, “The days of the all-powerful critic are over.” But, you still must have a pretty significant amount of power, as one of the lead critics in The Times. How much power do you feel you have? And, if at all, does that affect the way you go about doing your job?
AOS: I try not to think about it as I go about my job. I think it would be really paralyzing and it would kind of make me a bad person if I thought about that. You know, “I’m the mighty critic of The New York Times. I’m going to make you or break you, you little movie.” I have the good fortune and the luxury to be able to do most of my writing at home. So I can kind of pretend that this mighty institution —
TM: You mean you don’t have an office in the top floor of The New York Times skyscraper?
AOS: No. I have a little cubicle on the fourth floor. Which is basically where there are piles of books and DVDs. But I mostly am working from home in Brooklyn, so I can pretend I’m just like every other writer in Brooklyn, sitting with my laptop, either at home or in the coffee shop.
But I like to think that the power of critics is like the power of any other writer. It’s, finally, the power of persuasion. I might have influence to the extent that what I write can make sense to people and can make a strong argument and persuade them, at least, of the value of what I’m saying, of the complete truth of it. And I think where that influence, let’s say, comes from is the idea that a critic is an independent and honest voice in the culture.
Which doesn’t mean [a critic is] always right. I’m only one person doing my best to make sense of things and, to a very large extent, what I’m writing comes out of my own subjective experience, and my own views, and maybe my own biases, and my own history. But I’m trying to turn that into something, into some writing that people can find useful and that also is not — and I think this is very important and this is why criticism does matter in the world we live in now — that it’s not part of the machinery of advertising and publicity and marketing. That it’s independent.
Movie studios are able to flood the media with all kinds of publicity and promotion and marketing and advertising, including some that happens kind of under the guise of journalism. They can get lots of soft, appreciative features and profiles. And they can send the stars out onto the talk shows and stuff and create a climate of reception for these movies. And it’s important to have voices in the mix that can be heard that are speaking independently and truthfully about that.
Going back to Roger Ebert, the great appeal of that show, one of the ways that it lasted as long as it did, was that it was a place where people could go to hear two guys speaking their mind, speaking honestly and without compromise about movies.
TM: You talk in the book about a critic who “had seen too many movies.” Surely you’ve seen an extraordinary number of movies. How do you avoid that ailment?
AOS: I think the movies help a lot. The fact that there are so many of them and there’s such a variety and there are so many different kinds. And sometimes I can choose my assignments in a way that will refresh my sense of what the movies have to offer. For example, this year, after November and December and the Oscar movies, I was sort of exhausted and I was a little tapped-out with Hollywood movies, although I liked a lot of them. And so in the first month of the year, I was lucky enough to be able to review — I think in the month of January I reviewed only foreign-language films.
And it wasn’t that I loved all of them. Some of them I really liked; some of them were a little disappointing or flawed in some way. But they were different. They gave me another kind of filmmaking to think about. Different aesthetic questions…different kinds of stories. They came from different places. And the movies offer that variety. In a given week, I will review a documentary, a big blockbuster, a low-budget horror movie, a movie from Iceland or Mexico or China. So that keeps it very fresh and I’ve always thought that, the point at which I get tired, the point at which I get jaded, the point at which I start to think that’s it’s all been done, that all of the great or interesting movies are in the past, that’s when I should stop and get out of the way and let someone else do it.
You don’t necessarily have to be a starry-eyed Pollyanna. But it’s important to keep faith in the art form. To not get cynical. To not get jaded. To not get nostalgic. And sometime, when I take vacations, I have to just not see any movies. [Laughs.] You know, go sit on an island off the coast of Maine and look at the water for a week.
TM: Do you think there’s a viable path to becoming a professional critic today? What would you say to a student taking one of your classes [Scott is a Distinguished Professor of Film Criticism at Wesleyan University] who comes up to you — maybe this has happened — and says, “I want to be a critic. What do I do?”
AOS: It has happened. And it’s definitely a challenging time to embark on any kind of writing career or journalistic career. Although I think that things are maybe looking a little better than they were, say, four or five years ago when it just seemed like it was all bottoming out. But one thing is: people like to be sort of gloomy and nostalgic, but it’s never been — it’s not like any guidance counselor would ever have pointed a young person in a direction and said, “Oh yeah, film criticism. That’s the ticket. That’s the way to go.” It’s always been an uphill climb.
But I think that there are way more entry points and fewer barriers to entry than there used to be to getting your work out there, to getting your voice heard. There may also be fewer ways to get paid. And that’s kind of always the paradox of the Internet: you have this access, but how to monetize your content, as they say, is always the challenge.
But I have one example of a student of mine, from the first year I taught the course at Wesleyan. A brilliant student who followed a lot of critics and writers on Twitter and would get in these conversations and had these really smart things to say in 140 characters. And at a certain point, one of the people she was following and talking with about movies and TV was an editor at The Daily Beast who got in touch with her and said, “Hey, you want to write something?” And she’s been writing for that and for other outlets for a while now. I didn’t advise her [on any of that]; I can take no credit at all.
TM: It’s a modern-day Cinderella story.
AOS: It sort of is a modern Cinderella story. And the lesson is not about how to make a Twitter profile. But it was encouraging to me, because I thought, “If you have something to say, and you’re smart, and right, you can find ways to knock at the doors and to get noticed.” I mean, it doesn’t work all the time. It’s hard. There can be a long period of frustration, of not getting noticed or of having to kind of struggle to find an outlet. But in a way that’s no different.
I can remember when I was starting out, I was writing book criticism instead of film criticism. But I had one clip and I sent it out to like 60 different people and I heard nothing. But then I eventually heard from someone and got another assignment and another clip [and] slowly, slowly, slowly built something. But even then I remember talking to one editor I’d been writing for, when I was just kind of starting to get a taste for writing criticism in magazines and newspapers and stuff. And he said, “Well, you know, it’s impossible to make a living.” So that’s always been true. And yet people do.
TM: For people out there who are skeptical that criticism is an art form, in and of itself, how would you try to persuade them?
AOS: I would persuade them by saying, “Have a look at the theatre chronicles of Mary McCarthy, the music criticism of Greil Marcus, the film criticism of James Agee and Pauline Kael, and just about anything Susan Sontag ever wrote.”
I mean, if that’s not art, I don’t know what is.