Both Sides, Now

Sam Sacks in Open Letters Monthly:

Better-living-through-criticism-178x300To the naysayers who complain that critics are nothing more than parasites of art and culture, A. O. Scott has dismaying news: You too are a critic, that very opinion constitutes criticism, welcome to the club, pull up a chair. The premise of his new book Better Living Through Criticism is that the act of criticism is synonymous with the act of thinking, in the manifold ways this can done—wondering, questioning, investigating, examining, shaping ideas, forming judgments. You might imagine criticism to be a more professional pursuit—in Scott’s case, for instance, in his capacity as a film critic for the New York Times, it sometimes involves writing in-depth excurses on the latest superhero blockbuster. But Scott contends that in writing such a review,

a critic will be no different from anyone else who stops to think about the experience of watching The Avengers (or reading a novel or beholding a painting or listening to a piece of music). Because that thinking is where criticism begins. We’re all guilty of it. Or at least we should be.

That “should” is the keyword of this fluent and appealing if strangely slippery book. In its simplest sense it amounts to an exhortation: You already think about things all the time, so embrace that fact and try to do it as well as possible. “This is no simple task,” Scott writes. “It is easier to seek out the comforts of groupthink, prejudice, and ignorance. Resisting those temptations requires vigilance, discipline, and curiosity.” If this is stirringly motivational, it’s also rhetorically shrewd, since it sets the terms in such a way as to make disagreement impossible. Either you’re a critic or you’re a narrow-minded, bigoted rube. Your choice, friendo.

Scott, who is both learned and open-minded, has a talent for this kind of argumentative knight fork, in which he both anticipates and disables any resistance readers might conceivably raise to his gospel of critical thinking.

More here.