Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott
Everyone’s a critic, and for good reason. That’s A.O. Scott’s declaration in Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth, in which Scott dissects the nature of criticism, digging deeply into why it is a natural requirement to enjoying anything.
A.O. Scott is most widely known as a reviewer of books and movies for The New York Times. He appeared several times on At the Movies with Roger Ebert, and prior to that he reviewed music for Rolling Stone. Being a critic comes naturally to him, not because he likes to find fault in art (a misconception about critics he addresses in this book), but because criticism, as its own art form, has always fascinated him. Growing up, he devoured works by philosophers and well-known critics. He steeped himself in methods of evaluating art, or really anything, so much so that even as a teenager he found himself writing criticism. This is perhaps why Better Living Through Criticism reads like a love letter.
Scott argues that criticism is a natural extension of any kind of pleasure, whether it’s viewing a painting, watching a movie, or eating dinner. He says that in order to truly enjoy something you must criticize, so that what you consider to be the good and bad facets of something teach you a little about yourself. He also explains that, through criticism, art and food and other pleasures can be refined, honed to what makes something great. Criticism is also a way to share experiences with others, and again, learn something about yourself.
At times, Better Living Through Criticism gets a little heady or esoteric. I found myself re-reading sentences at times, trying to absorb Scott’s meaning. That’s not to say that the book is difficult. Scott writes like a master paints; he is a true wordsmith. His voice and his cutting sense of humor come through clearly. If you enjoy his reviews, you’ll find Better Living Through Criticism has the same rich concoction of highbrow writing and pop culture references. His sunny attitude shines through as well, giving you the sense that he genuinely relishes the chance to critique movies and books.
One of the techniques Scott employs in writing Better Living Through Criticism is a Q and A format. He imagines what a bystander or fan might ask him about being a critic, then answers those questions as a prologue to a chapter, or as the entire chapter. (I doubt he had to stretch his imagination much to come up with questions. In the book, he alludes to the fact that he gets questions about being a critic, in the mail and in person, all the time.) The exchange is playful, yet pointed. The back and forth dialogue reads like a real conversation, but one that is tongue-in-cheek at times, like when Scott pokes fun at himself for sounding like he’s talking in circles.
I greatly enjoyed Better Living Through Criticism, especially Scott’s references to Ratatouille, the Disney/Pixar movie about a rat who becomes a famous chef. Scott repeatedly references the behavior of food critic Anton Ego to illustrate that a critic is viewed as a parasite living off of other people’s work as well as a powerful individual, who is able to propel a movie to success or failure simply by giving his opinion. But through criticism, Scott says, the world can slowly become a better place for everyone.