Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Criticism would be better if there were less of it. Today anyone with an internet connection can post any nonsense opinion they want, with little regard for taste or even basic grammar. So with this review what I want to do, more than anything else, is to explore a little of my own methods, techniques and feelings on the nature of criticism, how I approach it, and what I think it’s limitations are, and perhaps, most importantly, why you should even be listening to me in the first place.
I suppose I wanted to be a critic from an early age, mostly because they got to do the things that I always wanted to do but was denied. They lived the kind of life that I wanted. I could never get to the theatre to see a play for example, so I read all the theatre reviews I could get my hands on. Likewise, the few novels that I could get my hands on were great, and always welcome, but it was always the book reviews that really stood out to me. More often the criticism was perfectly satisfying in its own right, complete and fulfilling enough to make anything more seem superfluous. However, the great majority of book reviews published today often give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is being dealt with.
And so, for me, when it comes to criticism and reviewing, two points are always paramount: (a) make your criticisms as honestly and forcefully as is appropriate, and (b) try to find any redeeming features in even the worst performance. Point (b) is perhaps the most egalitarian: hardly any book is completely void of some good qualities. It’s also important in a book review to convey accurately and succinctly what the author has to say before offering any evaluation whatsoever. Few books are perfect and many are defective in one way or another.
Whenever you read a review by someone that contains nothing positive at all, but only criticism, you should be especially suspicious, the reviewer obviously has an agenda or a vendetta or simply wants to look tough. A good reviewer must above all be fair, even when highly critical; so he or she should try to be as equally positive as well as negative. This is not to say that this will always be possible, or compatible, especially if the reviewer is at all honest. Tone and style are also both crucial tools in the critic’s belt. Although, the greatest difficulty, as Elizabeth Hardwick has said, “ making a point, making a difference, with words.”
My ostensible goal when crafting a review, is to celebrate the good and condemn the bad, but I am at every turn thwarted by the sheer mass of mediocrity with which I must contend with. Until one has had some kind of professional relationship with books one does not discover just how bad the majority of them actually are. In much more than nine cases out of ten the only objectively truthful criticism would be ‘This book is worthless’, while the truth about the reviewer’s own reaction would probably be ‘This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to.’ But the public will not pay to read that kind of thing. Why should they? They want some kind of guide to the books they are asked to read, and they want some kind of evaluation. But as soon as values are mentioned, standards collapse.
In essence then, criticism is highly subjective. But it is a sort of subjectivity which strives towards a universal objectivity. We all agree that things such as beauty, truth, pleasure and pain exist. But we don’t always agree on which forms in which they manifest. And really, what meaning is there in the word ‘good’ anyway?
Better Living Through Criticism attempts to answer this question, and is composed of six chapters and four dialogues, which opens with an imaginary, or perhaps not so imaginary, interviewer asking the critic: “What’s the point of criticism? What are critics good for?” And it says, just before it closes, that where criticism is concerned, “nobody has ever figured out where to begin, or what to conclude.” But does this mean we have gotten nowhere?
Well, no. Critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas. Henry James wrote that criticism showed the mind engaged in “a reaching out for the reasons of its interest,” and Scott, says something similar toward the end of his buoyant and argumentative book: “Let’s say that a critic is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.”
In other words, the nature of the critic, is to try to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. But most people simply do not care enough to read about criticism, and so aren’t likely to read a defense of it, and people who are already committed to criticism don’t need it defended. Who, then, is Scott attempting to persuade?
This uncertainty about audience is one of the most important and symptomatic facts about the book. It appears most clearly as a problem of reference, which is always an issue in criticism. A critic must assume a certain community of knowledge with the reader, or else the argument can never get started. But Scott is hesitant to take for granted any prior literary or historical knowledge on the part of the reader. No matter who or what is mentioned, Kant, H.L. Mencken, Henry James, Louis XIV, he introduces it with a journalistic tag: e.g., “Moby-Dick, (Melville’s) grand, tragic, philosophically ambitious narrative of an ill-fated whaling voyage.” This says both too much, who is the potential reader of Scott’s book that doesn’t know Moby Dick is a whale?, and too little, if you haven’t read Moby-Dick, three adjectives aren’t going to give you any real sense of it. Which makes the book extremely unfocussed in a way and I struggled to understand just exactly what the author wanted to accomplish. His measure of good criticism is almost too relative, too hard to nail down. Which is a function, primarily, of his laudable unwillingness to try to characterize what is good art or good literature given the variability of all forms of both and the tendency for many arbiters to see "quality" through a Western lens. But I would have preferred that he was a little more prescriptive about the principals behind what makes for good criticism which you would think is distinct from what is being critiqued. As a result, Better Living Through Criticism, ended up being a different book than what I was expecting. It was more personal and more abstract, really almost philosophical in it's approach to criticism. However, Scott does make a strong case for the inevitability of criticism as a feature of any society that values thinking of any kind and in the process, ends up providing an interesting history of criticism itself. Still yet, I do feel that the subject matter would have been better treated in essay form, rather than a full length manuscript.
Elaborating on what is perhaps the boldest argument Scott puts forth in the book, “All art is successful criticism.” Sukhdev Sandhu writes, “All artists find themselves reckoning with the past, judging its achievements, assessing its relevance for the present, revolting against or carrying the baton for it. Huge swaths of contemporary culture – from hip-hop, to the films of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers – are constructed from borrowing, quotation, and meta-commentary, much of it bracingly original. Seen in this way, they are not just poster children for postmodernism, but direct descendants of Shakespeare who ransacked the cupboards of high and low literature, history and folklore in search of viable scenarios, cobbling together scraps of Ovid, Holinshed, Latin comedy, and commedia dell’arte sketches.”
But criticism, even when it is not literary criticism, is still, nevertheless, a literary activity, it is a kind of writing. And a culture indifferent to writing will be indifferent to criticism. And criticism is always addressed not to fans, but to independent minds, people who express their enthusiasms through debate and analysis rather than dogged collecting and esoteric one-upmanship. And regardless of what may be believed, I do think it still matters what an unusual mind, capable of presenting fresh ideas in a vivid and original and interesting manner, thinks of books as they appear. I’ve written about a hundred book reviews since starting this blog and I believe the book review is one of the most valuable literary forms and not at all easy to do well. And I would encourage everyone to write them and to take them seriously.
Whatever its occasional pandering, Better Living Through Criticism, does exemplify the rhetorical virtues it so enthusiastically celebrates as being peculiar to the critic: attentiveness to detail, alertness to context, and a hunger for larger meanings. Reminding us that in the end, it is the job of the artist to free our minds, but it is the job of the critic to help us figure out what to do with that freedom once we have it.


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