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Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me
"Sontag & Kael is a magazine essay stretched out to book length. But that sleight of hand is forgivable. Seligman is smart, gracious, and so good a writer that you know he needs to get a first book out of the way so that he can turn to something more compelling or grounded. He has been a critic and editor for nearly twenty years now, and he is far too generous and self-effacing to push himself very much. But there are plenty of times in this odd mismatch when Seligman the referee is the most absorbing person in the ring, not least when he's encouraging himself to make the most of Sontag." David Thomson, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
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 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 as unusual and remarkable feat: he has produced a nuanced, luminously written examination that stands as an answer in itself.
"Though both were Berkeley-educated single mothers, critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael could not have been more different on the page. Where Sontag's tone was 'formal and rather icy,' Kael's was 'verbal bebop'; where Sontag's diction was dense and meticulously worked, Kael's was colloquial and straightforward. Former New Yorker editor Seligman, however, applauds both approaches and exuberantly celebrates his 'reverence' for the former writer and 'love' for the latter in this engaging book. Writing with a tangible joy that oozes from his first paragraph to his last, Seligman begins his paean to Sontag and Kael by documenting their controversy-filled rise to prominence as writers in the 1960s. A supporter — and later a critic — of 'camp' and a dissector of Leni Riefenstahl's fascist aesthetics, Sontag is the more criticized of the two, and Seligman spends a great deal of time justifying her ideological flip-flops and her comparatively unemotional response to 9/11. Kael, on the other hand, is a veritable goddess to Seligman. A late-comer to film criticism, she wrote her first review (of Chaplin's Limelight) at age 32 and was decrying screen violence and declaring Orson Welles a monster for the New Yorker by 1968. Replete with emotional asides, textual excerpts and personal anecdotes, Seligman's text often loses its focus. But what his stream-of-consciousness narrative lacks in organization, it more than makes up for in lyrical enthusiasm." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Seligman's brilliant and far-ranging critique of two paradigm-altering critics inspires the reader to think hard about art's place in life and criticism's role in culture, and to renew delight in blazingly bold interpretive writing." Booklist
"The attraction of Seligman's book is its invitation to have an argument — not with him, but with Kael and Sontag....It's a curious work, though, since it relies on a kind of staged ingenuousness, and the wonder is that the trick comes off." Michael Wood, The New York Times Book Review
"In his insightful and magisterial work, Craig Seligman not only delineates how Sontag and Kael's reports from the front defined culture, but helped shape it. Seligman is a critic's critic." Hilton Als
"Sontag & Kael is a great double date — criticism that 'puts out'." John Waters
Book News Annotation:
In a long essay of what might be called meta-criticism, New York book and food critic Seligman looks at the work and influence of fellow critics Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. He primarily points out their differences in style, mutability, and basic concerns. Though he has great respect for Sontag, he makes no secret of his love for Kael.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Can criticism be considered art? With wit and style worthy of his subjects, Seligman explores the enduring influence of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, two cultural critics who defined the sensibilities of a generation.
About the Author
Craig Seligman was born in Louisiana and educated at Stanford and Oxford. He has been an editor at The New Yorker, Food & Wine (executive editor), and Salon.com (books editor) and has written criticism for a wide variety of publications, including the San Francisco Examiner (where he was a staff film and book critic in the 1980s), The New Yorker, Salon, The New Republic, the Threepenny Review, the Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, and the New York Times Book Review (where he remains a frequent contributor). He lives in Brooklyn.
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