New York Times film critic A.O. Scott on Wednesday explained his recent move to literary criticism.
In an "Inside the Times" essay, Scott points out that he was a book critic before his hiring as the Times' movie reviewer. His series for the Sunday Book Review on forgotten American writers returns him to literary criticism.
Scott in the article supports the universality of cultural criticism over specialization. He quotes the late Los Angles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who started out as a music critic. "Criticism is criticism," Gold said, as cited by Scott. "An aria is like a well-cooked potato."
Following Gold, Scott claims that "any product of human creativity, however humble or highfalutin', exists to be appreciated, interpreted and judged. Whenever we take the time to listen, taste, watch or read, criticism is what comes naturally."
Cultural purists would argue that distinctions are vital, that a Beethoven symphony differs from a gourmet meal. Those traditional elitist views have been challenged by the rise of film and other popular arts. That a jazz composition by Duke Ellington displays artistic refinement comparable with a Mozart concerto is no longer disputed.
In supporting the primacy of criticism, Scott makes an appealing call for an aesthetic approach to life. Following Robert M. Pirsig's philosophy of quality in "The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," I've sought to bring such an appreciation to daily life. An Arby's can satisfy while a fine restaurant falls short. Yet, sometimes a potato is just a potato.
Scott began his series, which will appear in the Sunday Book Review, with an appreciation of the Western writer Wallace Stegner. While I found Scott's defense of Stegner's work unconvincing, I will look forward to his subsequent installments.
As Scott points out in his Inside the Times article, books and film are perceived differently yet share affinities. His broader focus is a gift to Times readers.