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.’