Sooner or later all critics of high standing feel compelled to justify what they do for a living. A O Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times, has written a full-length defence of his job that is notable for being entirely without polemic. Better Living Through Criticism is a book spooked and distracted by an awareness of other voices, with their immediate objections and crushing rebuttals, and it feels like a preview of a much firmer, more decisive work.
Scott begins the book in dialogue with himself. This takes the form of a Q and A session in which a questioning Scott pokes and prods an answering Scott. Along the way he brings up, in a relatively modest fashion, the article that was the catalyst for this book: his review of the blockbuster superhero movie The Avengers. The review was moderate, hardly a hit piece, but it prompted Samuel L Jackson, one of the film’s stars, to insult and dismiss Scott on Twitter. Who cares? I would like to say no one. But to Scott it had some significance, which he simultaneously downplays and exaggerates: ‘The Avengers incident blew up into one of those absurd and hyperactive Internet squalls that are now a fixture of our cultural life.’
This minor event is worth considering because it so perfectly illustrates the bathos of the book. This wasn’t Renata Adler mauling Pauline Kael in the New York Review of Books, nor was it Norman Mailer throwing a jab at a dinner party. It was a moment of no real friction