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?