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The Contents of His Head: On A.O. Scott’s ‘Better Living Through Criticism’

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When he became the New York Times’s chief film critic in 2004, A.O. Scott got one of the world’s great jobs at what was possibly the worst historical moment to have been so anointed. As a credentialed critic of the old, ex cathedra school, Scott is deeply out of step with his times. We live in an age in which opinion has been radically democratized by digital publishing, which means the professional has to shout louder than ever to be heard, a problem for which the Times’s enviable platform is only a partial solution. Institutional authority of all kinds has been on the run for almost 50 years in America, so Scott’s Harvard degree, his polished prose, and his intimidating cultural range — in an imaginary dinner a deux, this writer does not make it through the appetizer course with him without confronting panicked feelings of inadequacy — are not just unavailing but likely to create intractable resentment in many of his readers. And because we have become a society hungry to consume but paralytically reluctant to judge, one of the basic motives of the critic, to create taxonomies of value, has become suspect. This, then, is a rather defensive and sometimes irritable book, an act of muffled aggression by a man besieged and yet conscious of occupying a privileged position in the world.

The immediate sources of Scott’s anxiety are three: (1) a Twitter attack by Samuel L. Jackson after Scott panned The Avengers; (2) a podcast in which late Times media critic David Carr mocked Scott’s pretentions to authority, to Scott’s obvious irritation; and (3) Scott Rudin’s full-page ad in the Times for Inside Llewyn Davis, consisting solely of a slightly edited version of a message Scott posted, apparently in a condition of dubious sobriety, on his Twitter account. That new media played a role in each of these events is perhaps not coincidental; every writer not grinding out listicles feels at least some ambivalence about digital culture, if only because it threatens to drive the market value of his output to zero. Better Living Through Criticism is a defense of the critic’s work, but it is also, at times, a history of taste, a reflection on digital culture, a spectacle of explication, and above all, a defense of the unenviable condition, in our youth-obsessed society, of being middle-aged — that is, of having an aesthetic history. The book’s range of discussion sometimes feels like an abundance and at other times like a cheat, as though Scott failed in some measure to decide what book, exactly, he wanted to write — a restiveness perhaps reflected in its larkish, off-putting title.

Scott regards the impact of the Internet on criticism as largely negative, both because the Internet threatens the livelihood of professional critics (“Making a living…can no longer be taken for granted”) and because the tendency of digital culture is to erode the distinctions upon which criticism rests (“The relationship between market value and other, less tangible and sometimes antithetical values — of knowledge, beauty, originality, substance — seems to be in danger of falling apart, and as a result the basic distinction between professional and amateur threatens to collapse as well.”). Scott’s discussion is nuanced and fair, but still I think his account is too pessimistic. Some web-only publications already have supported the careers of excellent critics: Laura Miller of Salon and Slate; Kiese Laymon of Gawker and Guernica and his own blog, Cold Drank; the entire editorial enterprise of the Los Angeles Review of Books. And traditional media have greatly expanded their range through their websites. Tim Parks, for example, has produced a dazzling series of critical essays at NYRBlog, work that is of outstanding intellectual quality but that might not fit comfortably in the Review’s print edition. The digital format need not be an impediment to seriousness; the medium is not necessarily the message. I do not take a Pollyanna, “let a thousand flowers bloom” view of these matters; the Internet has had a devastating effect on newspapers, for example, a form of journalism that I am old enough to remember. But its impact on criticism, I suspect, will be mixed. In any event, it is almost certainly too soon to tell.

I also think Scott places too much emphasis on the pecuniary aspect of professionalism in criticism, at the expense of other, more important values. For a critic to make a middle-class living from her pen alone is no doubt gratifying, and a benefit to her dependents, but I do not think that it is crucial to the overall enterprise. James Wood and Nancy Franklin make a living as critics, as did Edmund Wilson in his day, but Lionel Trilling and Leslie Fiedler lived off their faculty salaries, without any appreciable loss of vitality. If there is not as much good criticism coming out of the academy as one would like, we can blame Continental theory rather than declining pay. Professionalism is made of sterner stuff, one hopes: a commitment to a certain standard of discourse; thorough knowledge of one’s subject; the cultivation of prose style.

As a film critic, Scott confronts a medium that is sometimes art but always business. Since movies are very expensive to make, they must be consumer products, conceived, marketed, and exploited as such. A good commercial movie is the product of immense professional skill by the director, the editor, and others, work that is adjacent to art but is not quite art, that lacks a crucial dimension of motivation or purpose. Outstanding craft in the service of meretricious ends creates a complicated problem for the serious-minded critic. We know where Scott stands on this: for him, a critic is someone who stands athwart the publicity steamroller that is The Avengers saying “Stop.” Indeed, one of our new duties in an age of relentless, all-pervading, and ever-more-sophisticated marketing is to develop strategies of resistance. This is not exactly the heroic endeavor that Iwo Jima was for our grandparents, but it is what we have available, and good critics give us the hermeneutic tools, the catapults and Molotov cocktails of that resistance. The case Scott makes in Better Living for the critic as counterweight to advertising and publicity is one of the strongest aspects of the book, a reminder of what rushes to fill the void when we lapse into critical lethargy.

Scott casts the critic in heroic rather than prosaic terms, as a maker in his own right rather than an appreciator, and beholden finally only to his own taste. His desire to claim for criticism the respect and prestige accorded to artists, without which a critic is merely a kind of particularly unenterprising journalist, is understandable. But I do not think the critical enterprise is robbed of luster by acknowledging that the critic has duties to those responsible for the work under review that might be in tension with his own creative impulses, duties of accuracy and fairness, and more complexly, of good faith. Scott would not gainsay these duties for a moment, I am sure. But about the resolution of these competing drives — the most basic of which might lie in the desire any critic sometimes feels to turn the occasion of the review toward his own aesthetic or political concerns rather than those of the director or author — he has chosen to say very little here. That is a shame, because Scott as much as any critic does justice to all constituencies.

Scott rarely refers directly to his own work in Better Living, a curious act of self-effacement for which, in my view, the payoff is inadequate. There are any number of interesting practical problems, upon which Scott is almost uniquely qualified to declaim, that go unaddressed. How, for example, does a newspaper critic confronted with writing multiple pieces per week on deadline avoid dullness, either of perception or of prose style?

[T]he doling out of consumer advice inevitably drags the act of discrimination into the swamp of relativism. The good enough — for this week’s paycheck or tomorrow’s edition — becomes the enemy of the best, and the chances of discerning and communicating the lasting merit of a given book crumble under a mass of discourse.

Scott himself seems to have conquered this problem, maintaining a consistently high level of thought and expression while being extraordinarily prolific. He has brought the 2,000-word essay-review nearly to the point of perfection; only a few critics have ever done it so well, and none to my knowledge that had to do it three times a week. He also regularly contributes long think pieces on film, books, and other matters cultural. But how?

I am aware here of committing a basic sin of reviewing, which is to ask for some wholly different book than the one the author chose to write. In the course of Scott’s career, which I have followed with interest, I have developed expectations about what he might do at book length, expectations that I am now holding against him. That is not entirely fair (though it is a risk attendant to being the “A” student that Scott perennially has been). For myself alone, then, Better Living is to some extent a story of missed opportunities.

Part of the interest, but also part of the difficulty, of Better Living is that Scott never quite settles into a consistent tone. He seems to feel that his subject is one that cannot be attacked directly, so he tries a variety of strategies, careful exegesis combined with personal observation and witty dialogues. Given that he is a highbrow (a former PhD candidate in literature) in a middlebrow medium (newspapers) writing about a creative form (the movies) that frequently has the lowest of aspirations, a mix of registers in his prose is perhaps to be expected. But one also senses some basic, unresolved ambivalence, a tension created by the confrontation between a scholarly temperament and a world of hot takes — indeed, that tension is, in a sense, the motive for the book. The author of Better Living seems like a man torn between a personal culture that says sublimate, sublimate, sublimate and a national culture that rewards acting out. What to do with all that ego?

Scott is a fine and scrupulous writer of prose. His exegetical skills are formidable. His culture is broad. He can give you a breezy account of European art history across four centuries; he can also tell you how the movie business works right now. He effortlessly parses T.S. Eliot and Immanuel Kant and Ratatouille. At times, though, one feels the conflict between the Scott who wants to make a grand gesture of self-assertion and the one who, after Eliot, seeks in art an escape from personality. Better Living wants to be a defense of traditional critical values, but tradition, as Scott well knows, has a rather bad name these days, and he is too canny, too much the common room politician, to get caught defending the arrière-garde. I would have been more gratified by a fuller-throated defense of the elitist view, not because that is the only defensible position, but because I would have felt that I was hearing what the most inward A.O. Scott truly believes. Instead one feels that a Prufrockian scrim of prudence and deference and good manners has been inserted between the writer and his audience. This is not to say that Scott should seek a more informal or democratic style; indeed, the casual, demotic voice to which he occasionally succumbs seems to me his least successful. And Scott is not, after all, Prufrock; he does dare, several times a week, often to great effect. But I would like to see him dare even more greatly. The great works of cultural criticism that he admires — White Collar; The Culture of Narcissism; On Native Grounds; Love and Death in the American Novel — are all touched by grandiosity. Scott has the resources to achieve something at that level. But he might have to risk a confrontation with his Times audience to do it.

Surprise Me!