The one ticket to heaven critics may possess is acquired through their discovery of new art or promotion of neglected art. H. L. Mencken earns a ticket here for helping to establish and find a wider readership for the novels of Theodore Dreiser, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather. [emphasis added] Edmund Wilson was invaluable in his day for introducing readers, in his book Axel’s Castle, to the great modernist writers and through his reviews in the New Republic and later in the New Yorker to a wide range of works, foreign and domestic, they might never have discovered on their own. Wilson prided himself on what he called his efforts at international literary cross-pollination.
Critics can be immensely disputatious among themselves, and have over the years formed schools from which schisms and thereby further schools have resulted. “Criticism, far from being a simple and orderly field of beneficent activity from which impostors can be readily ejected,” Eliot wrote, “is no better than a Sunday park of contending and contentious orators, who have not even arrived at the articulation of their differences.” Nor, usually, do they, ever.
A. O. Scott, one of the current movie reviewers of the New York Times, uses this Eliot quotation in the survey of the schools and fields of criticism that appears in his book Better Living Through Criticism.1 Note that I have called Scott a “reviewer” and not a “critic.” The reviewer advises you on what to see, read, hear, or not to see, read, hear. The critic accounts for the aesthetic principles underlying his judgments and sets out the significance, or insignificance, of the work at hand. [emphasis added]
The distinction is a useful one, and it is noteworthy that Scott fails to explain the difference anywhere in his book. This is a mark of the work’s thinness, and how it inadvertently reveals the true condition of criticism in our time. Better Living Through Criticism is intended as an argument in favor of the enduring power of a great and noble form, but it is in some ways more akin to an obituary.