...[a] lively, often impassioned, occasionally breezy defense of a profession that many see as headed to extinction ... acute exegeses stand in reproachful contrast to the occasionally lumpy quality of the book’s capsule surveys of intellectual history; like many a survey course, this one can feel at once cursory and undigested.
Mr. Scott turns his defense of the profession into an 'apologia pro vita sua,' psychoanalyzing himself for his benefit as well as ours ... The critic critiques and criticizes himself. And he acknowledges, too, that 'there is, axiomatically, no disputing taste, and also no accounting for it.' Criticism in its fullest form—analysis and discrimination—is always work.
The sections of the book styled as dialogues – in which conflicting versions of the author tussle with each other – read clunkily. But if there is nothing here as amusing as David Lee Roth’s quip – 'Most music critics love Elvis Costello, because most music critics look like Elvis Costello' – Scott is still an amiable guide through some of the key historical, philosophical and practical issues concerning criticism.
...[Scott] 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.
What haunts Mr. Scott’s book, and makes it so satisfyingly inconclusive, is the deceptively simple notion of thinking. Here is where the professional and the amateur meet ... Mr. Scott’s book moves swiftly through its elusive topics. Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? What does it mean to visit a museum? What sort of creature is a critic? What are the virtues of being wrong?
Scott's knowledge of American and European art and literature is deep, but if the above examples suggest that Scott is of the Dead White Males school of art appreciation, then you'd be half-right. Yet Scott acknowledges the debates over who gets to play cultural gatekeeper, not shying away from addressing canonical blindspots and the prejudices of critics. Further, he handles his historical sources and evident erudition with lightness and humor, never condescending to the reader.
Leaving out female critics — not to mention queers, working-class critics, and African-American critics — means leaving out an entire history of criticism that pushes back against this autonomy and embraces art’s potential to speak to the power imbalances of cultural production.
...a rather defensive and sometimes irritable book, an act of muffled aggression by a man besieged and yet conscious of occupying a privileged position in the world ... The book’s range of discussion sometimes feels like an abundance and at other times like a cheat, as though Scott failed in some measure to decide what book, exactly, he wanted to write — a restiveness perhaps reflected in its larkish, off-putting title.
...confessions are deployed in a somewhat mawkish question-and-answer format modeled, he says, on Paris Review interviews. I would have preferred him to be direct without the gimmick. Scott intended this, covertly, to be a book about himself—about his habits and sensibilities, his education and taste. The glimpses are fine. But it’s his parochial view of his craft that proves most illuminating.
Even if you find yourself suspecting that Scott may be the most well-adjusted critic in Gotham and the neuroticism more performed than felt, it’s an entertaining performance. Flagellating himself for his shallowness while writing with sensitivity and depth is a perfectly calibrated balancing act.
An eminently readable, if sometimes rambling, dialogue that engages with the tradition of aesthetic theory, from Aristotle and Kant to Oscar Wilde and Susan Sontag, Better Living Through Criticism examines the role of the critic in the age of the blogosphere.
Ultimately his book is a critique of thinking, and the direction it seems to be headed. It’s profound, even if parts of it are a slog, and it’s more than a little sad for those of us who’ve always believed that a smart review is itself a work of art.
Scott’s advice won’t change the world, but it may inspire a motivated reader or two. His book will no doubt be on film school syllabi. For would-be future critics, he even offers a list of words to avoid — the list is far too short, and leaves out 'riveting' — and the footnotes could keep any reader busy for months. Keep the author’s motivational fervor in check, and this self-help book is likely to work better than most diets.