Summary of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

Can you imagine a world without criticism? Sure, it would be great to a certain extent but what about movies, art, trends and culture in general? How would they be explained to the rest of the world and open our eyes to the benefits of analysis?

Whether we like it or not, critics have their place in the world. They perform an essential service as judges of society. Sure, harsh criticism can be brutal but sometimes it is criticism that gives us the push needed to be better. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The art of criticism
  • A critic’s role in society
  • How critics work in the modern world

Key lesson one: The art of criticism

Criticism exists because of our culture. However, due to ever-changing opinions, the way our society feels about things may change over time. This is just the way things happen. Criticism, however, is fixed in a single moment. It may or may not age well and can thus have an impact on a critic’s current views. Take music as an example. Back in the day rock n roll did not appeal to critics at all. They rejected it immediately. Over time, rock n roll became an integral part of music history and made those initial naysayers ultimately irrelevant. 

But if you think about it, it’s not really like they have bad opinions, they just couldn’t predict how our attitude towards it would change over time. You see, criticism is anchored at the moment it is given. When artists shock society by going against all that they know, the criticism of the work changes over time as society’s understanding of it also changes. But for critics, their job is to assess the work in the context of the current times.

Their job is not easy either considering how much material is currently out there. Critics aren’t just limited to art anymore. There’s a myriad of content out there just waiting to be judged. The interesting contrast is, as much as people want to know other’s opinions of their work, they also don’t want to be criticised. So, in a critic’s world backlash is expected and it doesn’t only come from the artists or people involved but from every person who disagrees. The internet has made this even easier. What it also means is that a critic can quickly gain notoriety which can also help their career in some ways.

Historically, critics who were controversial were often called failed artists but this was far from true. In fact, many famous critics were artists themselves. George Bernard Shaw, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were all critics and great artists in their own rights. These two professions are not rivals, they both draw from the same well of creativity to do their jobs. Criticism cannot exist without art and many art pieces themselves are made as the artist’s response to some other piece. Is that not also drawing from the artists that came before them and voicing their response? In this way, artists are critics themselves. This happens not only in traditional art but also in music and movies. As much as it may not seem like traditional criticism, in a way, they really are. 

Key lesson two: A critic’s role in society

The one thing we all have to admire about critics is that they are not afraid to speak their minds. As much as everyone has a tendency to judge, most people feel bad or scared to voice their opinion. That is completely understandable because if everyone passed judgement, the world would be in a fight. But for critics, it is their job to say what others can’t. In fact, it is thought that critics arose for this very reason. They were the ones who sought to hold up standards by making judgements based on the standards of the time. 

This made critics both respected and disliked by society. People don’t always like to hear the truth. Critics have also had to face accusations of bias as their opinions didn’t concur with others. These accusations are even more prevalent today as a society is filled to the brim with diverse opinions and standards. Critics still persevere though and they hold a power that cannot be denied. A single bad review is enough to halt the progress of anyone’s attempt at success. Even Moby Dick was not spared by critics when it was released and caused Herman Melville to retreat into the shadows. It was only after his death that the book was rediscovered and became the beloved masterpiece that it is today. 

Critics also have the ability to introduce new generations to works from the past. Society has more access to past cultural content than what has ever been possible before. With the help of critics, they are able to navigate through this content to determine what is worth consuming. In addition, critics are also able to look back on content and begin conversations related to the incorrect critiques of their forerunners. This ability has introduced a countless number of people to movies and music which at the time was considered unpopular. 

Indeed, critics have a way of making everyone see things from a different perspective. They give society their opinions and in turn, help everyone begin conversations that help discover universal truths. When people get to talk about what critics have said, they soon make their own judgement that comprises all the viewpoints brought forward. This is very foundation on which Rotten Tomatoes is based. They combine a number of reviews of a movie by different critics to produce a rating that encapsulates the views of society as a whole. 

Key lesson four: How critics work in the modern world

Nowadays, anyone can be a critic. In fact, the internet has afforded the status of a critic to everyone. Just think of all the reviews and ratings you have seen online. From restaurants to books, absolutely everyone has become a critic. But what exactly does this mean? 

Firstly, it is becoming harder to distinguish between amateurs and true critics. Online reviewers often resort to gut reactions if disagreed with and sometimes even resort to rage. In contrast, seasoned critics know that they have to put together their thoughts and insights. This is something that they have spent years perfecting. However, online, there is no distinction and everyone from traditional critics to bloggers have an equal seat at the table. This means that for a critic to get their opinion heard loud and clear, they have to publish much faster than before. Even students who have studied the art of critique need to compete with simple comment boards if they want to be heard. 

In addition, unqualified critics are more influential. Society can be easily swayed by a blogger who gets a topic trending. This has caused many a problem amongst professional critics with many of them questioning whether new forms of criticism should be so openly accepted. However, all critics have had to evolve to keep up with the time. No longer is print the main receptacle of critical debates. Printed media has suffered incredible blows as a result of the increasing popularity of the internet and society’s decreasing attention span. Social media has even made it possible to have a tweet released much faster than an article is published. In fact, by the time an article can be published, there could be hundreds if not thousands of tweets that render it obsolete and irrelevant. 

This means that critics have had to reconsider their approaches. Traditional media outlets battle to compete with online competitors. Critics now have to find a way not only to get people to read their articles but also to attract them with catchy sound bites, clickbait and flashy websites. Then they have to provide a way for viewers to like and share their critiques with others. Therefore, they have had to learn how to embrace digital media and internet publishers like BuzzFeed. 

As much as it sounds like the art of criticism is slowly changing, it is still very much the same. It is just society that has changed and that critics have had to evolve to stay relevant and still respected for what they do.

The key takeaway from Better Living Through Criticism:

The role of the critic has existed since the very introduction of different art forms. They were well respected by their communities and were seen as people who would uphold the standards of art. However, as expected, with criticism comes backlash. Critics, however, are not deterred by this backlash. In fact, they expect it – some even enjoy watching the ruckus they cause with their viewpoints. Whichever way you look at it though, life without these critics would be lacking severely. Not only do they spark conversation, but they allow people to formulate their own opinions of subjects. Even though critics don’t always get it right, they still have an incredible ability to stir the pot and rouse interest both in themselves and what they are discussing.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Better Living Through Criticism:

As humans, we are critical by nature. It just happens from what someone is wearing to the food you ate. Next time you want to practise the art of criticism constructively, try sparking a debate amongst your friends about something. This will enable you to see how everyone’s viewpoints differ and how popular opinion can influence people. It can be truly enlightening to see how critics have such an impact on what we believe and how we consume art in different forms.

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