Being a book on criticism, there is no shortage of reviews of A. O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism (Penguin Press, 2016). As is pretty much customary, some of them are positive, praising author’s erudition and “voice,” but loads of them are negative, or at least point out the books many faults and shortcomings. Perhaps this was inevitable, since it is a book on criticism, so the critics took it rather personally. The latter reviewers, as I see it, primarily address the two biggest problems of the book: its scattered style of argument and its paradoxical form. These two also caught my eye while reading it, which is why I would have tackled them, no matter what others had written. But after reading so many similar reviews, I would like to change the perspective for a bit.

As a continental critic, I must say that I seem to enjoy meandering and zigzagging much more then my fellows on the other side of the Atlantic. Which is odd, considering that, during my recently-completed PhD, I’ve read so many American monographs promising very specific subjects in the subtitle, while delivering very vague content – and here we kind of have it all: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth.

The book’s skeleton seems solid. We have 6 chapters and 4 fictitious dialogues, from the modest beginning to the ever-looming end, e.g. from What Is Criticism? to The End of Criticism. A. O. Scott confronts his reader and himself with all the most fundamental questions of his profession. What is criticism? Is criticism really an enemy of experience? What is the relation of criticism to history and to art? What is the price of a critics’ mistakes (bringing in the cases of Melville and Keats)? And so on. A chapter entitled How to Be Wrong is one of the essential chapters of the book, even though here Scott truly is unclear as to what he means by “being wrong,” and he leaves the conclusion up to the reader.

However, “being wrong” really is part of the job. It is the risk of asserting your opinion, of revealing your judgement – it is what makes criticism a far cry from the easiest job in the world, and also one of the most important jobs out there. This being said, for the better part of the book Scott writes, as the subtitle suggests, about his celebration of art, about the importance of art in his life and for our civilization. There are stories, anecdotes and subjects that are simply charming and entertaining, and this is what Scott does best. His illustration of how the Romantics construed works of art as natural phenomena, “to place them beyond the reach of criticism.” His tale of growing up and learning about goings-on in the world of art through newspaper reviews, even about art itself. This is Scott’s “voice,” his skill that compels the reader to move forward, even if he sometimes seems to lose the argument completely.

Nevertheless, some of the scattered approach is harder to apologize. It appears that Scott is torn between going straightforward and going in-depth, and he fails to pick a side. That is why, as Nathan Heller writes, the tendency of the book sometimes really is “[p]ointing toward interesting problems and promptly running away.” He asks the right questions, but fails to answer them in any satisfying manner, because he loses sight of the argument in the array of examples and sideways movements. Or, and this is the second problem, because he answers the questions with both a yes and a no. I do believe that the latter is, to some degree, understandable, since this is the state of the subject. Matters of art and literature are always ambiguous, multilayered and multifaceted, possibilities for discussion are infinite – and so are the answers. And again, this is Scott’s style, so maybe we are too demanding of his book. But there are also so many good questions about criticism that can be answered more determinately, while Scott has a habit of answering them merely casually.

Most importantly, Better Living Through Criticism is self-questioning, self-doubting of the professional critic. What is it that I do? What is criticism and why is criticism? How does it work, what does it do? These are the questions that matter, and they should be asked all the time. The good critic should examine his work and profession repeatedly, reflecting how the answers change, how he himself changes. In this way, the book grasps criticism as a philosophical problem. Scott states that criticism is inseparable from thinking and everyday thought processes of an everyman’s confrontation with art. Criticism is an art form of its own – and the most important part of the whole communication circle concerning books and literature, arts and humanities.

I really share this opinion, and would only add that the book (art), which is only read (observed), is just a dead artifact. Books (art) have to be talked about, thought about, written about, dealt with. Then again, I also have to add that there exists a middle link that Scott misses: a transition from everyday criticism to professional criticism. Perhaps there isn’t a difference in kind, but in degree. Even so, it is an important difference that persists even in this day and age of digital wonders. All professional criticism encompasses everyday criticism, contains thought. But not the other way around. Professional criticism is also the reflection of the everyday criticism of the professional critic, his emotional response to art, the structuring of his argument, his own context (age, gender, cultural background) and so on. Professional criticism is something private made public, a statement and the form of the statement as media. Is it an online or newspaper review? How long is it? Who chose the book? Does the publication have an agenda? These are important questions, too.

There were also some reviewers who sniggered at the book, asking why Scott would write a defense of criticism for those who aren’t going to read the book anyway. And even though this conclusion is right, in its own simple way, it is also too simple and, honestly, a little patronizing. As a critic, as a man of letters, I still believe I have things to learn. Better Living Through Criticism is a self-help book for people like us. Not just to self-reflect, but also to learn how to talk about these issues, how to convey our experience to the public. As Scott says, we live in the age of anti-intellectualism, in the age where people more and more question the use of criticism in the presence of internet forums, social media, Goodreads, and Yelp. His beef with Samuel L. Jackson, which he says led him to conceive of this book, is a proof of that. The discussion is, therefore, vital for “us,” for critics as public figures, as promoters of literature/art and of critical thinking.

Maybe this is not yet the end of criticism, but the fight is on. And it is “us” versus algorithms, confronting art versus consuming goods, as Scott writes: “Your patterns of consumption are understood to reflect your age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, political beliefs, educational level, and so on. More than that, those presumed identities tell you what you are supposed to like, more aggressively and persuasively than any bossy critic.”