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 some things in common - they were both Westerners who came east, both single mothers, and they both studied philosophy - they were polar opposites in temperament and technique. From the very beginning it's clear where Seligman's sympathies lie. Sontag is a writer he reveres; Kael is a critic he loves.
He approaches both writers 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. During the era of Vietnam and Watergate, Kael fretted over the national mood of self-laceration; nothing repelled her like guilt, while Sontag had to do something about the injustice she saw, whether it was enraging an audience at New York's Town Hall in 1982 or publishing an independent-minded essay in The New Yorker following 9/11.
But the question that Seligman keeps coming back to is: Can criticism be art?
"Seligman's openness and fluency take us to a place we couldn't have reached without him."