Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic


Today, an interview with New York Times film critic A.O. Scott appeared in Slate. The following is an excerpt from that interview (I’ve reversed the original bolding—bold is now Scott and plain is interviewer Isaac Chotiner):

Since you became a critic, are there any movies or any reviews you look back on and say, “Wow, I blew it”?

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.

. . . more broadly, do you ever think you were wrong not in your judgment of a movie but in some moral or aesthetic stand you took?

I think probably so, but criticism or reviewing is a present tense, very in the moment thing. Part of what we’re doing is the opposite of a definitive judgment. It’s a very early, very provisional, kind of putting down a marker and initiating something that’s going to go on for a very long time.

Here’s this idea restated by another response to the interview:

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. . . . But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness. Reviews . . . are merely signposts on the road to enlightenment, not its terminus.

I agree, but sometimes those initial reviews are a terminus. Sometimes because it was, as the critic said, a bad movie, and everyone who saw it thought it was a bad movie and no one had anything to add to the original assessment and that was that.

But what about when the small indie film that premiered at an off-brand film festival and rolled out to fifteen screens nationwide (seven each in in New York and L.A. and one in the director’s hometown), and is currently only available on dvd on the director’s website? Maybe that film was bad, maybe it was excellent. Maybe it was pure and simple or maybe it was so complicated and ambiguous it takes a dozen viewing to form a reasonable opinion about it.

That film perhaps deserved more than a review-as-terminus, but it may never get it, short of a Moby-Dick-sized miracle.

The relevance to Motley Vision is that rarely do we (or any Mormon critical outlet) revisit older works. Almost everything in Mormon letters is doomed to be forgotten outside the Google results for the first round of reviews. Republishing Dorian was a deliberate attempt to get one discussion restarted, but that discussion is . . . let’s say creeping.

Hamlet, I often tell my students, is the greatest piece of writing in the English language not because it is the greatest piece of writing in the English language but because it is the most engaged-with piece of writing in the English language. Only by returning to a work over and over and over—over generations, even—do we find the Great.

In Mormon lit, however, we seem cursed with a tragically short-term memory.

Turning slightly to the side, let’s return to Scott for a moment:

There are critics who see their job as to be on the side of the artist, or in a state of imaginative sympathy or alliance with the artist. I think it’s important for a critic to be populist in the sense that we’re on the side of the public.

I wonder if what critics or Mormon lit there are that The Public recognize as representing their interests?

Scott (picking up where we left off, originally):

. . . what we’re doing is the opposite of a definitive judgment. It’s a very early, very provisional, kind of putting down a marker and initiating something that’s going to go on for a very long time. I read some of my favorite critics, like Susan Sontag or Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert, and over the course of their careers they were wildly inconsistent.

What I very much believe in is trust. This is also one of the reasons that individual critics retain some degree of importance in spite of aggregation and Yelp scores. That you can open up the newspaper and find the person that you know. That takes time to cultivate and to learn, and in a way you sketch out a character that you’re going to become and that you grow into.

I’m making these quotation-heavy musings on the eve of the announcement of the 2015 AML Award nominees for criticism. And I don’t know what I’m hoping to draw out in terms of conversation. I certainly don’t want to get all woe-be-we on the subject, but I do believe that ongoing conversation on important work (eg) is, well, important.  So . . . what?

7 thoughts on “Come now, and let us be wrong together, saith the critic”

  1. This suggests to me an interesting and possibly useful distinction between the critic (as a populist voice in a populist medium such as a newspaper or magazine) and a scholar who engages in critical discourse. While the critic is primarily a present tense writer, the scholar is frequently a past tense writer, one who preserves, revisits, dusts off. Both are significant contributions, but, without the preservation of diligent, informed scholarship, it feels like present tense criticism has little tradition on which to draw and to which to compare, and very quickly evaporates once it has been written.

  2. .

    That’s a great point. Criticism should lead to scholarship and the draw from that scholarship. I wonder if this is a need that won’t be filled until the tradition shows up in traditional scholarly settings as a topic of discourse.

  3. “I think it’s much better to have my mistakes corrected by other people than to try to correct them myself.”

    Being corrected by other people is definitely a good thing, but I’d also say that I reserve the right to change my mind over time and so anything I write that’s criticism should be seen as being a snapshot in time and thus a starting point for discussion rather than a definitive opinion.

  4. .

    I agree with that. I think dialogue is important and I don’t mean by that I say something then everyone else talks about what I said.

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