Scott maintains a jocular attitude toward Jackson’s barbs—he emerged from the fray, it seems, quite unwounded. And he does move, swiftly and humbly, from a defense of his person to a defense of his craft: soon we’re on to the value of “intellectual scrutiny” and the indispensable triumvirate of “vigilance, discipline, and curiosity,” duly leaving all things Marvel behind. There are broad pronouncements of America’s cultural inadequacy: “Anti-intellectualism is virtually our civic religion,” for instance, or “we trivialize art. We venerate nonsense. We can’t see past our own bullshit.” Which would tend to rouse the thoughtful reader. But it says a lot that Jackson felt obliged to set upon Scott in the first place. It’s a privilege of the position. Of course Scott was not the only critic who disliked The Avengers: Amy Nicholson, Stephanie Zacharek, and Karina Longworth, to take but three examples, each gamely registered their dissent. But Scott was the only critic who reviewed The Avengers for the New York Times. The eminence of Scott’s platform glistens in every word that he writes.
Scott’s book deals with this unusual position only glancingly. “At their worst, critics can be guilty of aesthetic and even literal homicide,” he writes. “They have the power to the shut down plays with bad reviews and to consign worthy books and their authors to cruel and unjust oblivion.” By “literal homicide” Scott means John Gibson Lockhart and the negative review of Endymion that allegedly “killed” Keats, whose actual cause of death was tuberculosis. But it’s the aesthetic homicide that today seems more dubious—at least for most of us. How many critics have the power to make or break a book or a movie or a play? Perhaps Pete Wells cleared some space from Per Se’s reservation book when he downgraded their luminous four-star standing to a meager two; but Wells, like Scott, speaks on behalf of an institution whose stature and influence confers upon its critics an authority scarcely enjoyed by their colleagues. Most critics cannot take it for granted, as Scott apparently can, that readers are interested in what they have to say.
Beyond institutional affiliation, critics usually gain authority in three ways. They can be first responders: if they called the genius of Patti Smith before she was Patti Smith, their taste in other new music is probably of note. They can be scholars: someone who knows the canon backward and forward seems a sound gatekeeper for esteem. Or they can be seducers: they’ve wooed and won you with their work; you follow them because you like the way they think. The trouble is that each virtue is unreliable, and almost nobody fully embodies all three. We give critics broad mandates, and they’re constantly betraying our trust.