This is not a systematic review or commentary of A.O. Scott’s Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. It is a meandering meditation and collage of notes and thoughts on criticism after reading Scott’s book.

The following two sentences I will use and think about as a writer for years to come. I will likely share these with an English class in the future (with the intent on imitating):

What kind of grown man sits through Kung Fu Panda scowling at the screen and taking notes?   (pg. 141)

Who but a lunatic or an idiot would critique a rose or a mountain or a sunset, or for that matter an earthquake or a thunderstorm?  (pg. 131)

Quick answers to the above questions.

  1. A.O. Scott (and probably me too)
  2. Teenagers

I like the distinction between those two questions. Kung Fu Panda is a human product, whereas roses and mountains and thunderstorms are not. It’s hard to know how to communicate with those who would critique a rose. Again, teenagers.

Scott’s book was a fun meditation on thinking and the role of criticism. I love how he describes the first step. He calls it the foundational act; “the foundational act of criticism, which is the selection of an object, the willed decision to look.”

And that’s a good point: not every topic or subject deserves or warrants a thoughtful meditation or commentary. One of the things I’ve been trying to do on this blog is to act out that “willed decision to look.” I am doing this by choosing topics and forcing myself to say something about them.

The idea or initial connotation of criticism is negative. I’ve made a conscious decision on this blog to think and write about things that I enjoy, things that seem beneficial in some way. There does some to be a role for the opposite. And the opposite tends to play better. Think about news stories and all that. We are drawn and conflict and chaos and controversy. Here, let me tell you why I like pine cones…

I think rants would get passed on more and gain more traction. In fact one proven and shared technique for starting a blog and gaining and audience is to PICK A FIGHT. Maybe I should do that as an experiment. After writing 100 Appreciations, I should write 100 of whatever the opposite of that would be called.

Scott writes a similar sentiment here:

Criticism (if I may change the metaphor) is not a pendulum swinging from age to age between savagery and softness. It is, rather, a pit of opposing impulses, existing in a state of perpetual confusion and self-doubt. (pg.126)

I hate to relate to being, as a writer and human, “a pit of opposing impulses, existing in a state of perpetual confusion and self-doubt.” So I won’t.  I think a lot about something I’ve read from Vonnegut and Eggers when I think about criticism.

Whenever I think of critics or criticism I think of what Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Palm Sunday:

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.

And I also think of this rant that Dave Eggers went on when someone once asked him what he was doing to avoid selling out. I feel like a few years ago everyone was passing this around and linking to it. You should read it. You can find it here. Here is part of it:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.  – Dave Eggers

The counterpoint to just say yes is that by saying yes is saying no to something else. We have to choose where to spend our time and energy. Why I love criticism and good recommendations is that they help us do this. They help inform us of what something is about.

CRITICS provide context and perspective and allow us to wade through all the available noise. Scott writes that: “The sheer quantity of text in the world threatens to erode the value of particular texts, to undermine the authority and integrity of writing as an enterprise.” And partly because of that, it’s nice to have honest and informed criticism. It’s nice to have recommendations of things to make the “willed decision to look” about.

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  1. Philip Cacka says:

    I critique sunsets and flowers all the time. Not because of the items in and of themselves but I think about how other people would critique them and what kind of reaction they would have to seeing a painting or photograph of the subject. That’s the downfall of the art business, it’s difficult to not see everything as an exploiter of nature.

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