Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism
A. O. Scott

In these essays on criticism (or “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth”) the film critic A. O. Scott quickly disposes of originality. “Imitation is not the erosion of originality; it is the condition of originality.” “Really, there is nothing new under the sun.” Well, I didn’t have to put that second one in quotation marks, but it’s what he says.

This is an essential first step in such a book, as Scott has nothing new to say. The usual, and very familiar, subjects and sources are canvassed. I didn’t find much to disagree with, which is both good and bad. Good in that Scott doesn’t say anything very stupid; bad in that his main point is that criticism is all about thinking, with the critic being, ideally, a kind of catfish (to borrow a contemporary trope or meme for a disruptive force). And yet despite this one feels inclined to skim the pond.

I think critics are important, but are they essential? One of the saddest things about Scott’s book is the interchapters that take the form of interviews or dialogues with himself. Or perhaps even sadder is the fact that the book’s impetus seems to have been a tweet made by the actor Samuel L. Jackson about one of Scott’s reviews. I doubt Jackson cared about Scott’s response, leaving the prominent critic to spend a good chunk of the book talking to himself. You have the sense of a man very much alone in a room, knowing that when he leaves he’ll be the one who has to finally turn out the lights.