A. O. Scott
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.