What is the Critic’s Job? A Review of A. O. Scott’s Recent Book


Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A. O. Scott.  Penguin, 291pp (available from Amazon)


I have always found the expression common sense a contradiction.  Sense is anything but common.  Just look at the UK’s negotiations on Brexit if you don’t believe me.  Sense is in short supply.  Whenever it is in evidence, it is always insightful.  Moreover, it has never come from a government mouth but, for the moment, only from a solitary voice of HM Opposition, Sir Keir Starmer (former Public Prosecutor and now Labour’s leader for Brexit).  Imagine if Sir Keir were leading these negotiations: he is avowedly a friend of European culture, and said that the transition period (his idea; he called it the necessary extension period) should be as long as it needs to be.  Having belatedly taken up Starmer’s idea, the Tory government are now squabbling among themselves about the length of the period needed.  They are once again fanning the flames of no deal is better than a bad deal which both EU and UK know is nonsense, and could only at best lead to a South Sea Bubble deal: pay now and you will be told the details some years after payment.

Insights are the accumulation of all the experiences we carry around with us and which arise for attention when we are confronted with an experience related to all that baggage; frequently subconscious too, before the new experience prompts their usefulness for an understanding of the new deal.  Often a eureka moment: who’d have thought this could mean that?

A. O. Scott is very good on the question of readers’ rights. If critics neglect them, they do so at their own peril, he says. Subjugations I find in the depths of my mind: they usually arise in the subjunctive, which you will remember is the mood of possibility.  Trading with them is half the fun of criticism.  Scott likes fun.  He thinks your readers will like it too.  There is a long, un-putdown-able chapter on How to Be Wrong, which begins,

Everybody likes to be right.  It feels good to win an argument, to claim ownership of the relevant facts, to say See! I told you so.  But it is the sacred duty of the critic to be wrong.  Not on purpose, of course, and not out of laziness, ignorance or stupidity.  No: the critic’s task is to trace a twisted, looping, stutter-stepping, incomplete path toward the truth, and as such to fight an unending battle against premature and permanent certainty.

That last sentence, by the way, is what grammarians call a periodic sentence –one whose independent main clause comes at the end, and much beloved of Virginia Woolf, Henry James and Susan Sontag, all of whom are much lauded by Scott as masters of the art and craft of criticism.

In the early days of The New York Review of Books, the co-founder/editor, Barbara Epstein, sent out a circular to her contributors, which among other things, said, Write as though you are addressing the reader of above average intelligence, but be sure to explain any technicalities within your specialism. As a subscriber for over twenty years I can tell you that this advice has been, and continues to be followed.  I would never have believed I could have become absorbed in an essay on astrophysics or the intricacies of genetics until I began my NYRB subscription.  The editors have a delightfully mischievous way of inviting reviewers who know more about the subject than the author of the book under review.

The real pleasure of Scott’s book is that it is a supreme specimen of the matter it is discussing: what exactly is the critic’s job?  Early in his career Scott was an assistant editor to Robert Silvers (the other co-founding editor of the NYRB).  Today he is The New York Times chief film critic.

Every critic knows that all criticism is self-criticism, which is to say it is liable to tell you more about the critic than what is supposedly being criticised.  George Bernard Shaw is an extreme example of this.  He is so busy entertaining his audience (the readers) that he often loses what he sets out to criticise.  I’m not suggesting that we read GBS just for the jokes (pertinent as they are) but in the final count it has to be recognised that his whole piece is indeed full of insights too.  But in Shaw’s case that little word too is important.  In the way that all Oscar Wilde’s characters are Oscar Wilde, all GBS’s observations are GBS.  But then, both were Irish wits, so the rules no longer apply. However, it seems to me that lesser mortals should not push their luck along these lines.

Mediocrity is the critic’s most deadly enemy.  A praiseworthy performance will set off a thousand insights.  All the critic has to do is depart gingerly on the right path of Being Wrong. The same with a thoroughly bad performance.  Easy-peasy to travel the Being Wrong track and frequently with a lot more to learn down this lane.  Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic is perhaps one of the best representatives of this, at his best when everything is wrong about a restaurant including the kitchen sink.  Or especially the kitchen sink.

But what could ever be said of a mediocre performance?   That it was like every other?  That it was a bad imitation of another?  And don’t get me wrong: imitation can be significant in the right hands.  (There is a critic’s opening if ever there was one.) That it was dull?  (Get to work on a mini thesis on dullness?) I recall Magda Olivero replying to a girl’s request for a verdict on her voice at an opera competition on whose panel I also served.  Magda looked at her notes and said, Signorina, there are hundreds of voices like yours and unless you learn how to do something with your voice, nobody is going to listen to you.  Harsh but true judgement.  I often wonder if the girl took the advice to heart.

This reminds me of Benno Moiseiwitsch’s audition with Lescheitizky in Vienna in 1904; the boy was thirteen and affirmed as an excellent pianist across Europe.  Lescheitizky said, Well you certainly can’t play the piano with your fingers; maybe you should try with your toes.  Moiseiwitsch never tired of repeating this experience to anyone who would listen.  Of course, what Lescheitizky wanted was to shock the boy into rethinking his vast repertory. It worked too. And the pianist said that throughout his life whenever there was a feeling of disconnecting with his music, he always went back to the Lescheitizky method.  But look carefully and you will see that this was no method at all; the Polish maestro’s famous pupils all sound different; the secret of the “method” was that it was not what you could put into the pupil, but what you could get out of them.

Put that another way and say it is getting the pupil to connect with himself. (I confess I’ve just interrupted by own mediocrity in writing to connect with the 1961 Live YouTube recording of the Chopin Sonata in B minor Op.58.)

A. O. Scott sets the bar high for critics: he wants our writing to be life-changing. I am not aware that I have changed any lives in anything I have written. But I have sometimes been stopped in the streets of Rome (where I spent fifty-two years teaching in higher education) when former students would thank me for a Keats seminar or an Isaiah Berlin seminar, which they claimed many years later had unexpectedly given them a bag of tools to confront new, unrelated problems, and therefore changed their lives.  As Alan Bennett’s Hector says in The History Boys: Pass on the parcel boys, that’s sometimes all you can do: pass on the parcel!

I don’t know what Mr Scott’s views of that would be.  But UK readers might like to know that The New York Review of Books is on sale in branches of Waterstones and other booksellers. Promise I’m not on a commission for divulging this information.

Jack Buckley

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