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A. O. Scott, Last of the Power Critics

The Times's film critic writes as though a review can still make or break a work of art. It can't.

Razumovskaya Marina Nikolaevna / Shutterstock

Renata Adler felt that a writer could go mad working as film critic for the New York Times for more than a year. A.O. Scott has been doing it for 16. What is it like to review movies for the Times? Scott’s new book Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth will give you a pretty good idea—though not deliberately. It is, among other things, “a manifesto against laziness and stupidity,” a “celebration of art and imagination,” and “an examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and of the various ways we refine that impulse.” It’s also a book about what it means to be a critic—and, less obviously, a book about what it means to be A.O. Scott. Its 277 pages hardly mention his sixteen years on the job. But they’re there. The book patently bears the weight of its author’s tenure.

Why write a book about criticism? Scott was compelled, curious to report, by Samuel L. Jackson. “AO Scott needs a new job!” the actor long ago insisted in a tweet, apparently ruffled by Scott’s review of The Avengers. “Let’s help find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” This short-lived “Twitter beef,” Scott says, “made the news in Brazil, Germany, and Japan,” as online stateside “miniature think pieces sprouted like mushrooms after a rainstorm.” For Scott, meanwhile, the beef occasioned deeper inquiries: taking seriously the “valid and vital question” raised by Jackson’s flippant call—the question of “just what the job of the critic is, and how it might ACTUALLY be done”—he proceeds to answer it as exhaustively as he’s able. And so here it is. If nothing else this is almost certainly the first book-length work of criticism inspired by an angry tweet.

Scott maintains a jocular attitude toward Jackson’s barbs—he emerged from the fray, it seems, quite unwounded. And he does move, swiftly and humbly, from a defense of his person to a defense of his craft: soon we’re on to the value of “intellectual scrutiny” and the indispensable triumvirate of “vigilance, discipline, and curiosity,” duly leaving all things Marvel behind. There are broad pronouncements of America’s cultural inadequacy: “Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion,” for instance, or “we trivialize art. We venerate nonsense. We can’t see past our own bullshit.” Which would tend to rouse the thoughtful reader. But it says a lot that Jackson felt obliged to set upon Scott in the first place. It’s a privilege of the position. Of course Scott was not the only critic who disliked The Avengers: Amy Nicholson, Stephanie Zacharek, and Karina Longworth, to take but three examples, each gamely registered their dissent. But Scott was the only critic who reviewed The Avengers for the New York Times. The eminence of Scott’s platform glistens in every word that he writes.

Scott’s book deals with this unusual position only glancingly. “At their worst, critics can be guilty of aesthetic and even literal homicide,” he writes. “They have the power to the shut down plays with bad reviews and to consign worthy books and their authors to cruel and unjust oblivion.” By “literal homicide” Scott means John Gibson Lockhart and the negative review of Endymion that allegedly “killed” Keats, whose actual cause of death was tuberculosis. But it’s the aesthetic homicide that today seems more dubious—at least for most of us. How many critics have the power to make or break a book or a movie or a play? Perhaps Pete Wells cleared some space from Per Se’s reservation book when he downgraded their luminous four-star standing to a meager two; but Wells, like Scott, speaks on behalf of an institution whose stature and influence confers upon its critics an authority scarcely enjoyed by their colleagues. Most critics cannot take it for granted, as Scott apparently can, that readers are interested in what they have to say.

This matters because Scott writes with a certain presumption of universality. His survey, in the early chapters of this book, of the history and evolution of criticism as a philosophy trade are bolstered by what is plainly a staggering erudition. But as he approaches the practice in its modern condition he is confronted by the limitations of his privilege—the prestige and elevation that insulate him from the realities of writing for a living without the patronage of the Times. “Criticism is not a matter of technique or form,” Scott writes, “so much as it is a matter of personality, of who you imagine is doing the talking.” But equally important is on whose behalf the talking is being done. Blog or trade? Alt-weekly or the paper of record? It matters a great deal.

Penguin Press, 288 pp., $28.00

Toward the end of the book Scott takes a moment to acknowledge the ascent of the web and its irrevocable effect on criticism as it has been traditionally practiced. He describes the change in safely general terms: “The basic distinction between professional and amateur threatens to collapse,” he writes, as, in the free-content chaos of the internet, “making a living… can no longer be taken for granted.” He identifies the prevailing pugnacity of online discourse—the kind that beleaguers comment sections and social media, one presumes—as, generously, “one manifestation of the critical spirit,” which is in keeping with the “everyone’s a critic” sentiment that courses through much of the book. And he is willfully unsentimental about the fall of the old guard: “The loss of daily critics is in some cases lamentable,” but those dailies, after all, were rife with “the hackwork of lifers reassigned from the local sports beat when their drinking finally got out of hand.”

But whether Scott takes the internet seriously as a platform for criticism in its highest form is rather unclear. The “wild garden of unfettered expression” that is the web, he writes, is “a frequently cacophonous symphony of mockery, snark, rage, and mischief not infrequently leavened by clarity, conviction, and intellectual stamina.” That this garden has yielded already a richer diversity of critical voices—voices long marginalized by the very institutions Scott represents—goes pointedly unmentioned. Any debate about old media and new Scott summarily dismisses as “a quarrel of ancients and moderns destined to end in stalemate.” He sees well enough that the print critic “appears at present to be facing the prospect of extinction.” His incuriosity about the lives of the critics replacing them greatly curbs the scope of the book.

A.O. Scott will be 50 this year. He’s spent a good portion of his life in the dark. What is it like to wield his authority? To be a staff critic at a time when critics are increasingly freelance, or to write for a paper read by millions at a time when most other papers are barely read at all? Scott sneaks a bit about himself in, playfully: he is a “Gen-X baby in the throes of denial and acceptance,” he admits, once “saved” by punk rock and “freed” by rap. These and other confessions are deployed in a somewhat mawkish question-and-answer format modeled, he says, on Paris Review interviews (or David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, though that book’s Q’s are blank). I would have preferred him to be direct without the gimmick. Scott intended this, covertly, to be a book about himself—about his habits and sensibilities, his education and taste. The glimpses are fine. But it’s his parochial view of his craft that proves most illuminating.