For fans of high culture, pop culture and American genius, a personal and idiosyncratic exploration of two of the 20th century's most distinguished cultural icons. With wit and style worthy of his subjects, Craig Seligman explores the enduring influence of two critics who defined the cultural sensibilities of a generation: Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Though outwardly they had several things in common--they were both Westerners who came east, both schooled in philosophy, both secular Jews, and both single mothers--they were polar opposites in temperament and approach. From the very beginning Seligman makes his sympathies clear: Sontag is a writer he reveres; but Kael is a writer he loves. He approaches both critics through their work, whose fundamental parallels serve to sharpen their differences. Tone is the most obvious area where they're at odds. Kael practiced a kind of verbal jazz, exuberant, excessive, intimate, emotional, and funny. Sontag is formal and a little icy--a model of detachment. Kael never changed her approach from her first review to her last, while mutability has been one of the defining motifs of Sontag's career.
Moral questions obsess Sontag; they interested Kael but didn't trouble her. Then there's the matter of self-revelation. Under Sontag's aloofness smolders an impulse toward autobiography so strong that it isn't an exaggeration to call it confessional. Kael seems to be terribly intimate and forthcoming, and yet she turns out, when you peer closely, to be surprisingly guarded. But the question that Seligman keeps coming back to is: Can criticism be art? In seeking to answer it, he performs an unusual and remarkable feat: he has produced a nuanced, luminously written examination that stands as an answer in itself.
Editor/journalist Seligman debuts with an analysis of his two favorite critics, one of whom he loves, the other of whom he . . . admires. "I didn't want to write a book with a hero and a villain," he declares, "but Sontag kept making it hard for me." Seligman certainly isn't the only person in America who thinks the author of Against Interpretation and other groundbreaking works of criticism is arrogant, humorless, and charmless, but he's probably the only one who felt the need to write half a book about her. He works hard to explain why Susan Sontag is important, and he pretty much succeeds, especially in the section about her controversial speech at Town Hall (breast-beating about Stalinism in front of leftists assembled to support Poland's Solidarity movement) and her much-reviled New Yorker essay in response to September 11 ("Let us by all means grieve together. But let's not be stupid together"). Casting a cold eye on too-easily-received wisdom is a valuable virtue, Seligman reminds us, in our overheated, sentimental culture. But he's clearly much more personally attuned to Pauline Kael's warm embrace of American pop culture, even as he points out that the influential film critic could be just as combative and controversial as Sontag (Kael's notorious pan of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah being the main case in point). Seligman was Kael's friend for the last 23 years of her life; he doesn't even want to meet Sontag. He may conclude, reluctantly, that "Sontag often seems to me the greater writer," but few readers will believe it when comparing the zest with which he conveys the idiosyncratic particulars of Kael's passion for movies with the irritable respect he accords Sontag. More fundamentally, it's never clear why these wildly unlike women who wrote in such different areas should be yoked together, though Seligman makes a few unconvincing attempts to identify traits they shared as being fundamental aspects of the best criticism. Readable and intelligent, but what's the point? (Kirkus Reviews)
Number Of Pages: 256
Published: 1st May 2004
Country of Publication: US
Dimensions (cm): 21.0 x 14.0
Weight (kg): 0.41
Edition Number: 1