In the early 1950s, when he was scraping by in a New York rooming house and pondering “On the Road,’’ Jack Kerouac wrote many letters — to Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, to publishers. The most surprising note to turn up in this correspondence, though, was a warm and even intimate letter to Alfred Kazin, the eminent critic. The two men did not know each other well. What tie might be assumed between a striving, benighted creator and a man whose primary function was to chart, sort, and reduce the artist’s work to judgment?
This interaction makes a lot more sense after reading A.O. Scott’s brisk, elliptical, and counterintuitive new book on the nature of criticism. Kerouac went on to ask Kazin for a Guggenheim recommendation, but that’s not the kind of better living Scott describes here. Instead, the New York Times arts critic attempts — and largely succeeds — in rescuing criticism from the ideological and culture kudzu that has grown round it as we’ve leapt from the culture wars into the age of the Internet and cultural relativism. Once clear of all this, he discovers an activity at the heart of living.
A great deal of winnowing is required to get there, however. Reading this book occasionally feels like watching Bruce Lee battle an army of fighters approaching with increasingly blunt objects. Naysayers wield snobbery (criticism isn’t an art, but a parasite to it), relativism (how do you judge anything, especially when everything is an opinion?), political thought (art is often declared and preserved in ways that violate its sanctity), and historical hindsight (critics have been fabulously wrong, often).
The offensive knife-work Scott demonstrates in taking on some of this is impressive. But his defensive impulses are better. “Better Living Through Criticism” neatly side-steps certain fights by replacing snarling dichotomies with illuminating paradoxes. Scott argues, for instance, that critical thinking actually proceeds creation because an artist learns how to create by developing critical faculties. In another chapter, he draws the critic and artist to an even closer embrace. Both struggle under a creative paradox; to last, or to have any value, their work must be universal and subjective all at once.
As if to demonstrate the importance of striking this balance, “Better Living Through Criticism” alternates its arguments with imaginary dialogues between the author and an off-stage interlocutor — a form, Scott points out, that has been used in the past by Oscar Wilde and David Foster Wallace. On some occasions, it’s hard not to wish Scott, who is no slouch in these areas, possessed their quantities of wit and erudition. It’s hardly a damning criticism. These were two of the brightest writers ever to live. But in a form like this pyrotechnics are vital.
Something fruitful emerges, though, from how Scott juxtaposes these dialogues and his meditations on criticism and its paradoxes. By revealing bits of his own biography — he was the young man who read the Village Voice to participate in punk culture from afar; he, like so many earnest young writers, carried Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet’’ — a portrait emerges not of The Critic, but A Critic. This critic is not a warrior, slaying ideological dragons, but a clear-thinking aesthetics professor who listened to the Clash. He is the movie buff who probably balances kids on his lap while taking notes on the films he reviews. These details might seem small, but their inclusion rescues “Better Living Through Criticism” from existing entirely in the sound and texture of thought. In short, they smuggle a bit of living in the back door while Scott is telling us that how we think — how we see, sort, and form judgments — is central to who we are and how we live.
“Better Living Through Criticism” performs this feat through example, too. And here Scott plays to his greatest strengths. When he threads descriptions of novels (Teju Cole’s “Open City’’), poems (Philip Larkin’s “Reasons for Attendance”), films (Jean-Luc Godard’s “Histoires’’), and even art performances (Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present”) through his arguments, they cease to be arguments. He merely becomes a man consumed by joy, a man seeing, rather than one trying to build a bridge between art and life. In those moments, he proves criticism exists — as Kerouac’s great novel demonstrated — because we need, on occasion, to feel that gap doesn’t exist at all.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CRITICISM:
How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth
By A.O. Scott
Penguin, 277 pp., $28
John Freeman is the editor of the literary biannual Freeman’s.