A.O. Scott’s “Better Living Through Criticism” won’t be released until next week, but it’s already stirring up interesting discussions as Scott hits the trail to promote his book. There’s a lot to chew on in Scott’s interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, including his thoughts on the Oscars diversity controversy. (“I’ll fight you on ‘Creed,'” Scott tells Choitner. “‘Creed’ is a fucking great movie.”) But I was particularly struck by the following exchange:
Chotiner: Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, ‘Wow, I blew it’?
Scott: Yes, there have been many, many such times and I will take them all to my grave with me and never admit to them because the job of the critic is to be wrong. I think it’s much better to have my mistakes corrected by other people than to try to correct them myself.
“The job of the critic is to be wrong.” It’s a mildly glib statement, and one that could easily be misinterpreted, not to mention used as fodder for a snarky rejoinder. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s only a matter of minutes before some wag responds to Scott’s statement with, “You’re really good at your job!”
But it’s also startlingly close to something I’ve often thought but never written down, or maybe even said, which is that I aspire to be wrong every single day. (Disclaimer: The thoughts that follow are my own, and A.O. Scott should in no way be held responsible for them.) What I think Scott’s getting at, and what I know I believe, is that criticism isn’t meant to be the final word but an opening statement, or, increasingly, a volley in the potentially unending ping-pong match between writers and readers — to the extent that distinction is even meaningful anymore. Critics should try to be right, of course, whatever that means in the context of a largely subjective medium. (My definition: Passionate but controlled; true to the aesthetic and moral principles you’ve articulated and evolved over the course of your critical career. Also, try to spell the names right.) But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness. Reviews — especially those written before a movie’s been released into the world and had a chance to interact with its environment — are merely signposts on the road to enlightenment, not its terminus.
Especially for critics who are part of the profession’s overwhelmingly white male majority, like Scott and, uh, me, it’s essential to hold onto the idea that there might be something you’re missing, a perspective you’re not seeing. You’ll still be wrong sometimes, but as Scott points out, criticism is now and forevermore a two-way street. If you mess something up, someone will let you know — sometimes not in the nicest terms, but then critics aren’t always so nice, either. If you listen, it’s an opportunity to learn, to be less wrong next time, or at least wrong in a more interesting, productive way. Readers may be looking for an authoritative thumbs-up or -down, and the people who make the films in question may not be thrilled about their role as agents in a critic’s process of personal growth, but take comfort in this: If you think we’re wrong, we won’t argue the case.