What Is the Critic’s Job?

Carmen Henning
A.O. Scott, Brooklyn, October 2015

Two lucid and intelligent books, A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism and Arthur Krystal’s This Thing We Call Literature, explore the same complex theme: criticism as a public art and a public service, performed, however, by critics who speak for themselves, addressing individual readers, not a collective public. Both books draw maps of the disputed border between popular and elite culture and find ways to cross it without pretending it doesn’t exist.

Scott is a newspaper critic, Krystal a freelance essayist. Both are tempted by nostalgia for a mid-twentieth-century era before books and ideas lost status and excitement. Each writes outside the academy but cares about what happens inside, and each laments (in Scott’s words) “the normalization and standardization” of academic criticism that treats works of literature as products of social conflicts, economic pressures, or other impersonal forces operating unconsciously through language. Each resists nostalgia by finding ways to think about books and art with renewed urgency.

1.

Scott’s title, Better Living Through Criticism, alludes ironically to the old DuPont slogan that, until drug culture co-opted it, promised better living through chemistry. The book itself ignores the irony. It praises criticism for offering readers a better life by alerting them to the direct, personal demands that art makes on anyone who listens. At the heart of the book is the conclusion of Rilke’s sonnet about a statue in the Louvre, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a sentence, spoken by the poem or the statue, commanding poet and reader: “You must change your life.”

Scott reviews films for The New York Times. His embarrassment at explicating Kung Fu Panda II while preferring Rilke emerges in the whimsically diffident Q-and-A exchanges that outline his argument. The book got its start, A tells Q, when the actor Samuel L. Jackson, offended by Scott’s characterization of the superhero movie The Avengers as a mere “A.T.M.,” provoked “one of those absurd and hyperactive Internet squalls” by tweeting: “AO Scott needs a new job!… One he can ACTUALLY do!” Afterward, Scott, still in his job, began planning a book “asking just what the job of the critic is, and how it might ACTUALLY be done.”

“A critic,” he writes, “is a person whose interest can help to activate the interest of others.” His ideal critic uses whatever knowledge, taste, and wisdom can be brought to the task, but cares less about passing judgment than about understanding the particular ways that a work speaks to one viewer or one reader. Scott doesn’t much like Marina Abramović’s performance art, in which (for example) she stares across a table at museum visitors and many of them start weeping, but it encapsulates his theme: we “go to an art museum to find connection with another soul.”

For Scott, the critic best understands a work when the work seems to understand the critic,…


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