Man Up! It’s Hard to Be a Critic

A. O. Scott has written a new book, Better Living Through Criticism.  If you’re like me,  you do not know who A. O. Scott is.  He is the movie critic for the New York Times.  No, he is the film critic.

I do not see many films at the germy cineplex here.  In the last few months, I have seen Star Wars, Joy, and The Lady in the Van.  The first two are what I call movies; the last may be a film.  And I must say, Jennifer Lawrence, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Joy, is the Prettiest Actress Ever Stuck Playing the Inventor of a Mop.

I am never going to read a book with the title  Better Living Through Criticism.  I am a great fan of Pauline Kael’s witty essays, which  have titles like “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism?”

But I did read Nathan Heller’s lively review in The New Yorker of Scott’s book.

I cannot criticize a book on the basis of a review (or is it criticism?), but I can’t resist because I gather that Scott’s book is a lament about being a Gen-Xer who went to an Ivy League school and now writes criticism and doesn’t get the respect he wants.  Heller says Scott makes “a case for his embattled craft.” It seems that Scott assumes that readers of blogs and Yelp!  cannot tell the difference between film criticism and the reviews of  “Blogging Bob” (a character invented by Heller).

Heller is a young smart writer. He opens the review with a description of  George Orwell’s writing reviews for money and not respecting the work.  Then Heller segues into the difference between critics and “Blogging Bob.”

What’s the point of a reviewer in an age when everyone reviews? A common defense of the endeavor centers on three qualities: expertise, eloquence, and attention. Critics have essential skills that Blogging Bob does not. They know more. They are decent writers, who can give a fair encapsulation of a work and detail their responses. And they’re focussed: since their job is studying and explaining the object at hand, they are especially alert to its nuances.

Yes, it’s funny–but “Blogging Bob?”

Then Heller condescendingly adds that Blogging Bob, a tax accountant, may indeed have a lively voice and know about films. But the damage is done.  Nice try, but the name Blogging Bob says it all.

A. O. Scott may or may not be Critic Claude. I have invented the character Critic Claude in response to Heller’s invention of Blogging Bob.  This is not Scott’s fault.  And yet I am so, so very tired of white male Ivy League-educated critics complaining about the waning of criticism when they have jobs that others would kill for.  The quotations from Scott’s books are not especially promising.  “Will it sound defensive or pretentious if I say that criticism is an art in its own right?”

Yes, it sounds defensive because we already know that.

Here is another quote from Scott:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name—the proper name—for the defense of art itself.

Criticism has its place; We have no problem with that.

But I, too, have seen some changes in the culture.  It’s a tough life!  Scott graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and then found work at prestigious publications in New York. Heller also graduated from Harvard and ditto.  I got my master’s from a state university  and could barely pay the rent with my teaching job. (I switched professions.)  And most of the Latin (slave) teaching jobs, German teaching jobs,  etc., are long gone except at eastern private schools that pay much lower wages than the public schools.

I ask myself, What would Pauline Kael do?   She wrote: “Film criticism is exciting just because there is no formula to apply, just because you must use everything you are and everything you know.”

We love the internet; we hate the internet.  Our little blogs are not criticism. Godspeed, Mr. Scott!   But criticism isn’t the most embattled profession.

2 thoughts on “Man Up! It’s Hard to Be a Critic

  1. People do love to swipe at bloggers, don’t they? Well, if I want an honest and reliable opinion about a book I’ll read a blogger I know and trust. And if I want proper lit crit I’ll probably read a collection of it in a book. There aren’t so many serious critics in the papers over here – for example the Times used to have a whole book review supplement on Saturdays but that went some years back. I guess that ‘serious’ reviewers are feeling the pinch…

    • It is sad to lose review sections. Newspapers are not doing well. There is a lot of upheaval because of the Internet. But it is ridiculous to compare bloggers and critics. There are so many different blogs, and the purposes are so different! There is still very lively film criticism at The New Yorker, and I’m content with that! And then there are our blogs and book reviews.

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