Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth
A. O. Scott
Literature, culture

I wanted to read this book for obvious reasons: I take some pride in these book reviews, and I want to make them better. I was hesitant, though, because Scott is a film critic. I don't watch many movies. I figured that Better Living Through Criticism would be full of references that I wouldn't get.

Surprise! Better Living Through Criticism is almost devoid of specifics. Instead, it's virtually 100% at the level of (broadly speaking) theory--maybe even philosophy. Scott barely touches on movies. Heck, he barely touches Earth. He's too busy reeling off a checklist of intellectual touchpoints. Aristotle! Ranier Maria Rilke's sonnet Archaic Torso of Apollo! The appalling Edmund Wilson! Susan Sontag! Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment!

The weird thing is that Scott eschews the one thing that one would expect from a critic: drawing a conclusion. Is Kant right? Is Sontag wrong? Scott doesn't say--or, rather he says both no and yes. He proceeds by a relentless, repetitive cycle of Hegelian synthesis (see, I can be an intellectual name-dropper too). Here's a juicy but totally typical example:
The impulse to conserve and move slowly, to build incrementally and protect what has already been done, is an honorable one. So is the drive to start again, to bend the energies of creation towards an unseen future. But this is also to say that both sides are wrong. Each one's error is inevitable, since it reflects an ineradicable fact of the human predicament. We live at the mercy of time and can only fail in our efforts to master it, to speed it up or slow it down.
Uh, okay, A.O. If you say so. It's not clear that this helps me think about art, pleasure, beauty, or truth, though.

Scott's devotion to the theoretical is just baffling. He quotes with evident approval a long piece of poetical lit-crit that is, basically, one giant failure of basic logic. He loves good critical writing, but he doesn't seem to care whether it makes much sense or has anything material to say about How to Think About Art etc. Better Living Through Criticism has some neat if slightly self-conscious postmodernist prose, but the overall effect is that of watching someone else play a complicated and largely pointless game of solitaire.


  1. His thinking isn't yours and that's okay. :)

    1. Yeah, but I'm not sure what his thinking is. Criticism is both an art and a commentary on art. It's both necessary and frivolous. It's elitist, except that it's populist. It's the product of a courageous singleness of vision--no, it's the product of the collective zeitgeist. It's a dessert topping and a floor wax. I'm not exaggerating, either.

    2. My undergrad degree was in comparative literature, and we spent an awful lot of time in this kind of mental exercise. I must admit that the sophomore in me understands and even enjoys it. That said, I'm not a sophomore anymore, and I was often disappointed by the lack of backbone you mention. I mean, say it clearly and make a point, please.

    3. That expresses it perfectly. The book is the kind of thing undergraduates muse about for hours. I'd have been less unimpressed if its title had been A. O. Scott Thinks About Criticism. (Hey, that kind of sounds like a catchy blog title!) Or if it had been shorter. Or if it had been less self-conscious. As it is, the book is not awful per se--but it is awfully self-indulgent.