Samuel L. Jackson, Mad Max, and Susan Sontag: My Road Trip With A.O. Scott

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A.O. Scott. Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

One day in the spring of 1998, I tagged along with a friend of mine who was making a covert pilgrimage to the New England headquarters of the Church of Scientology. Her purpose was research. She was writing a paper on its then-disputed legal status as a religion. I was along on a lark. We both took the Scientology personality test, which I sensed was meant to measure some combination of self-confidence and non-fuck-up-ness, and presumably to find some exploitable deficit. I’m proud to say that, in all but one column, my scores were very high. In that column, I hit near rock bottom.

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked the post-test Scientologist counselor, whom I’ll call Dwight.

“You’re too critical,” Dwight said.

“I’m a critic,” I said.

“What do you mean?” Dwight asked.

“I write criticism for the college literary magazine,” I said.

“Oh, well, it’s good that you do something you enjoy,” Dwight said. “But being so critical, doesn’t it make it hard to get along with your friends?” His point seemed to be, I thought, that the test indicated I might not be a nice person.

“My friends are critics, too,” I said.

I don’t imagine that Scientologists are the target readership of New York Times film critic A.O. Scott’s new book, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth. Nor, perhaps, are most of the people who’ll be writing reviews of it — critics (like me) who will take the (semi-ironic) premise of its title for granted and will have reached their own conclusions about its instructive subtitle. Scott’s book is disguised as a defense of criticism, but it’s actually something more interesting: a love letter to his (our) vocation. That it is disguised as a defense is one of its main charms. The defensive posture is strategic: Critics who come in open praise are less persuasive than those who defend what they love against opponents, real or imagined. Which may help explain why they’re (we’re) always complaining about their (our) own demise or irrelevance. In any event, it’s a more charitable explanation than the conventional one, of simple envy.

But critics do produce real opponents, especially in the age of the rabid fan. One real opponent Scott names in particular, in his book, is Samuel L. Jackson, who flamed Scott on Twitter for his not altogether un-positive review of the first Avengers movie, which Scott had called “a snappy little dialogue comedy dressed up as something else, that something else being a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” Jackson addressed the film’s fans and tweeted, “AO Scott needs a new job! Let’s help him find one! One he can ACTUALLY do!” Jackson later elaborated to an interviewer that The Avengers was merely a “fucking great movie,” yet also a “bullshit piece of pop culture” and not something to “intellectualize.” But the paradox of the bullshit masterpiece aside, intellectualizing pop culture is part of Scott’s brief at the Times, and so Jackson’s remarks spur the central question of Scott’s book: Why is any art, from high to low, worth thinking about, out loud or on paper, and not just, say, experiencing?

I tend to be skeptical of critics’ defensive poses. Last fall, when Scott wrote a defense of snobbery that ended on a note of enthusiasm for Mad Max: Fury Road, I pointed out in a piece of my own that it hardly seemed the sort of movie one needed to be a snob to defend. Scott responded with good humor on Twitter, and that week, I bumped into him — we’d never met — at a party and suggested we talk about his book. Last week, he invited me to join him on the ride from Brooklyn to Middletown, Connecticut, and back, and to sit in on the class in film criticism he teaches at Wesleyan.

I arrived at his house in Prospect–Lefferts Gardens around 8:15, and we set out in his blue Subaru. Traffic on Eastern Parkway, the Jackie Robinson Expressway, and over the Whitestone Bridge was light.

I started by asking about the path that had led Scott to his job at the Times. Scott is the child of two historians; Donald Scott is an American historian at CUNY, and Joan Wallach Scott is a historian of France at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study who’s written canonical works in the field of gender studies. (She is the niece of the late actor Eli Wallach.) Scott attended high school in Providence while his mother was teaching at Brown. He went to Harvard and as a freshman enrolled in Barbara Johnson’s class in deconstruction. It was the mid-1980s, and theory had just infiltrated the institution, and a class his senior year with a visiting Fredric Jameson put him on a path to a graduate program at Johns Hopkins, where theory was really ascendant. Another teacher, the philosopher Stanley Cavell, steered him toward studies in 19th-century American literature, especially the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It’s your birthright,” he told Scott. But at Hopkins, Scott’s dissertation efforts stalled, in part a matter of shifting subjects (from initial work on Melville, then a turn forward a century to Robert Lowell and Frank O’Hara). He told me it was only around this time, pushing 30 and adjuncting in New York, that he started reading mid-20th-century American fiction seriously, John Updike and Mary McCarthy in particular.

I was surprised to hear that Scott had come so late to Mary McCarthy — I’d always considered reading The Company She Keeps something of a rite of passage for anyone of literary inclinations moving to New York — but then it occurred to me that I hadn’t really heard of McCarthy until I read Scott’s piece on her in the New York Review in the fall of 2000, when I was 23.

I mention all of this not because Scott’s résumé is exceptional — he would be the first to tell you that many cultural journalists of his generation landed in the profession in flight from humanities departments — but because the specifics of his trajectory still leave their traces in the intellectual style very much on display in his book and his film criticism. Though you’ll never find him burnishing quotations from Of Grammatology (he admits to being able to quote passages offhand as an undergraduate), the dialectical style essential to theory provides the deep structure for everything he writes — every proposition suggesting its own contradiction, as Scott weaves sentence by sentence to his synthetic conclusions. This style of argument is melded to the Emersonian spirit that cleaves to the Democratic ideal that every citizen has a stake in the culture. (Emerson: “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all.”) So when Scott confesses himself to be a snob, he does so, I think, with a sense that it’s a way of being that all of us can and should aspire to.

In that sense, the title of his book can also be taken literally. In its opening pages, Scott invokes Oscar Wilde’s notion that criticism is a creative act, an art that enhances all the other arts by its engagement with them, and that critics are themselves artists. One of the effects of Scott’s art is that in his criticism, he comes across as the ultimate reasonable man. He’s not a hothead or an assassin. When his judgments veer negative, they do so with an air of disappointment rather than outrage or contempt. His praise songs have the light touch of tempered delight rather than zealotry or intoxication. Partisans who come to his writing have been frustrated by his moderation, but it’s a tone that fits well in the pages of the Times.

Better Living Through Criticism wasn’t meant to be Scott’s first book. Years ago, those tracing Scott’s byline might have noticed that his author’s note mentioned that he was working on a history of the postwar American novel. Scott had left behind graduate school and adjuncting in the late 1990s. By this time, married and a father, he had begun writing reviews for The Nation, then under literary editor John Leonard. (Scott was a friend of Leonard’s stepdaughter at Harvard, and the Leonards’ house had been a place to stay on his early visits to New York City.) Scott took a job as an editorial assistant at the New York Review, where he worked for a year before becoming the Sunday book critic for Newsday and a regular contributor to Slate. It was a Slate piece on Martin Scorsese that drew the attention of editors at the Times and got him hired, along with Elvis Mitchell, to replace Janet Maslin as film critic in 1999. It was a hire greeted with skepticism in some quarters. “Has he seen six films by Bresson? Ozu?” Roger Ebert asked a reporter for Salon. “That’s not the sort of question they would think to ask. Would they hire a book critic to be their music critic? Architecture critic? No, but that goes without saying. They probably believe, like many other editors, that anyone can be the film critic. It is the only job on the newspaper that everyone, including the editors, believe they can do better than the person on the beat.”

Ebert later recanted his remarks, and Scott was one of his successors on the final season of At the Movies. But Scott admits there was a learning curve in taking his new job, and the process of learning on the job, taking in the history of cinema, interfered with the process of surveying the history of the postwar novel, a project he’d envisioned as picking up the thread of Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds. The project stalled, and he came to see it as a failure he’d conjured to offset his success at his day job, and he eventually paid back his advance to FSG. Scott has now been on the job for 17 years, and though he may have his rivals and detractors, his legitimacy isn’t in doubt (except to the extent that every critic’s legitimacy is always in doubt, by the general public, by anti-critical critics, by Scientologists).

Every critic constructs a persona (or a few) that will necessarily be something of a fiction, however much overlap there is with the facts of the writer’s life. Scott told me that the “I” in his writing is always a father. (He is a father of two.) A glance at Scott’s annual lists of the year’s top-ten films shows an openness to family-friendly fare, movies that you wouldn’t expect on an intellectual’s roster of favorites. (I noticed many titles I’d never considered seeing: I’m uninitiated in the charms of Pixar; Scott named WALL-E his top film of the year.) His position doesn’t allow him to restrict his attentions or his praise to the Werner Herzogs and Olivier Assayases of the world. Scott is also a regular contributor of essays to various sections of the Times. In the autumn of 2014, he contributed an essay on the end of adulthood in American culture that traced a twisty path from Huckleberry Finn and Moby-Dick to Knocked Up and Girls, observing that our fictions, if not our real-life institutions, are witnessing the collapse of patriarchal authority, with liberating effects (if mostly imagined ones). Around the time he finished the essay, Scott also found himself reviewing Boyhood (another of his annual No. 1s), just as his son was leaving home to attend college. His emotions were evident in his criticism.

The new book marks something of a return to Scott’s pre-movie-critic roots. Though there’s plenty about film in Better Living Through Criticism — from The Avengers to The Searchers, from the French New Wave to Ratatouille — it is as much or more so a literary book, grounded in readings of sources classical (Hesiod, Aristotle), Renaissance (Vasari), Victorian (Arnold, Pater, Ruskin, Wilde), and modern (Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Yvor Winters, Philip Larkin). Scott told me that his impulse to write it had come out of a sense that criticism was “a misunderstood activity” in the digital age, and in response to a wave of arguments by critics against criticism: “There was a triumphalism — we have social media, we have algorithms, everybody can do what they want and like their own thing, and we won’t need critics or criticism anymore.” There was, there still is, a rising tide of opinion that box-office sales are a metric superior to reviews, that we can finally liberate ourselves from the duty to eat our cultural vegetables, that whatever’s popular is axiomatically also good.

“There’s a certain kind of false populism,” he said, “that I think is actually always in defense of corporate interests, spuriously in the name of democracy. You complain about — oh, the critics are such elitists — but the people who run the studios are a much more empowered elite. You’re writing in opposition to any kind of independent mediation in between the customer and the producer. You claim to be defending the public taste, but you’re actually defending the sales department.”

But when he got around to writing his book, Scott found that it wasn’t enough to hold up Kant’s Third Critique with its notion of the “subjective universal” as a talisman against the online hordes and their professional abettors. “Philosophy is of limited help,” he said. “Philosophical aesthetics, or evolutionary theory, or neuroscience, or whatever sets out to explain pleasure, are a dead end when you’re trying to explain why do we like a certain thing. They completely evacuate the whole history of art and culture. A philosophy of judgment or of taste will not be of any use to you in the critical analysis of a particular work.”

“One thing that I discovered is that a lot of the arguments that are being made about the internet — the anxieties about collapsing standards, leveling hierarchies, chaos, and anarchy — have existed at least since the beginning of print. The internet is in many ways an extension of the Gutenberg universe. I was interested in why criticism continually appears as a problem, as something we’d be better off without. There are arguments in favor of correcting it, like Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Function of Criticism at the Present Time’: If we got rid of all of that bad, irresponsible, naughty, provocative criticism, and concentrated only on the best that had been thought and said, criticism would be on the right path. But of course that’s never going to happen. Still, that wish recurs. It underlies Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation.’”

I admitted to Scott that I’d never really understood the meaning of the last line of Sontag’s essay calling for a “hermeneutics of art” to be replaced by an “erotics of art.” This led us into a discussion of the distinction between criticism that begins with the objective properties of a work of art and that which springs from the critic’s experience of it. “I do begin with and write out of the experience,” Scott said. “I am interested in the objective properties of whatever it is I’m writing about. The thing you know, the safest epistemological ground, is what happened to me, this experience that I had. There are any number of ways that you can go with that. And I don’t think it means just simply that my writing is a chronicle of that feeling, or a memoir of that experience. It’s an attempt to turn that feeling into an argument, to find a rational discourse that will support it. It involves a certain amount of self-interrogation. How much of the experience is a result of my own prejudice, or my own resistance, or my own blind spots?”

Personally, I wasn’t sure, in picking up Scott’s book, what I was looking for from it. Something to inform my own writing? Affirmations of our mutual vocation? A manifesto against which I could launch a counter-polemic? I told Scott that I was disappointed to find there was little I disagreed with in his book. For me, it was candy: a tour through many debates that were familiar to me, and many, particularly the Victorian ones, I had somehow missed over the years. For a critic, the most heartening chapter is “How to Be Wrong,” which centers on a discussion of Frank S. Nugent’s 1938 Times pan of Bringing Up Baby, catalogues all the crimes critics commit, and ends with a sort of exhortation to criticism’s vices:

It doesn’t matter. Actually, it matters a great deal. It matters more than anything. You are guaranteed to be wrong — to insult good taste, to antagonize public opinion, the judgment of history, or your own uneasy conscience. And there is no beautiful synthesis, no mode or method of criticism that can resolve these contradictions. They cannot be logically reconciled, any more than a safe, sensible middle path can be charted between them. Still less is it possible to declare a decisive allegiance, to cast one’s lot with the party of form or the party of content, the armies of tradition or the rebel forces of modernity, the clique of skeptics or the company of enthusiasts. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom and the wisest criticism will be that which tacks toward the extremes, risking hyperbole and outrageousness in its pursuit of truth. It should go without saying that every good critic, every interesting critic, will have committed some of the crimes enumerated above, whether brazenly or unwittingly. A great critic will be guilty of all of them.

“To the extent that there’s a polemical thrust that this book has,” Scott told me, “it’s a fairly simple one: in favor of thinking. It’s against the notion that we’re just supposed to have fun. Turn off your brain and eat your popcorn. I’m offended by that. If someone is spending $200 million to make and market a movie, there’s no way you can say, ‘That’s just nothing.’ Plus, it’s two hours of your own life, $15 of your own money, and all the dreams and emotions you bring into the theater with you. Why empty out your own experience? Why be passive about it? Why accept it on the terms that it’s given to you? The book is a plea to be more active, more engaged, and more thoughtful.”

What’s thoughtful to some can seem heretical, or even oppressive, to others. I brought up one set of Scott’s sometime antagonists, who can seem to be at once both thoughtless and very thoughtful: those fans. But he doesn’t see them as antagonists, not exactly. “If you go on the internet and dig into fan culture, there’s a great deal of criticism happening. It’s a more priestly kind of criticism in that it accepts certain articles of faith from the start. One of the distinctions inside criticism that’s always interesting is between the priestly and the secular: one that’s committed to a body of knowledge and belief, the other more free-ranging and skeptical. I think priestly criticism can be valuable, but I certainly fall on the secular side.”

We arrived at Wesleyan, where the readings for Scott’s three-hour class were Philip Larkin’s poem “Reasons for Attendance,” H.L. Mencken’s essay “The Critical Process,” and Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.” In Larkin’s poem, a man stands outside a jazz concert as younger people dance, and he listens to “the rough-tongued bell / (Art if you like) whose individual sound / Insists I too am an individual.” The first half of the class was devoted to a discussion of the poem, the difference in the experience of art between the dancers, for whom it’s a proxy or warm-up for sex, and the speaker, whose detachment renders him something like a critic. It wasn’t lost on me that watching Scott hold forth while his students put forward their lively reactions, he was something like the trumpet player, the students like the dancers (though I could only see the backs of their heads), and I the poem’s speaker. It also occurred to me that they were among the ideal audience for Scott’s book. Sontag made them even more lively, and one bright kid seemed to be able to guess at the arguments of “Notes on Camp” even though it was clear she’d never read it. Mencken’s essay follows Wilde in the notion that critics are themselves artists: “By becoming an artist, he becomes the foe of all other artists.” This notion surprised some of the students. One of them asked Scott if he considered himself an artist. He said, “I do.”

On Criticism: My Road Trip With A.O. Scott