Cover image for Sontag & Kael : opposites attract me
Sontag & Kael : opposites attract me
Seligman, Craig.
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Publication Information:
New York : Counterpoint, [2004]

Physical Description:
244 pages ; 22 cm
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PS3569.O6547 Z88 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Two resounding critical voices made sense of the creative ferment of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, two opposing forces of high-octane intellect and demanding aesthetics, two outspoken and revolutionary women: Susan Sontag and Paulineael. Seligman has drunk deeply at the well of both of these seminal and controversial thinkers, but his adoration takes different forms: he lovesael and reveres Sontag. This crucial difference underlies his bravura inquiry into their ethos and influence, a dazzling performance of close reading in which he so vigorously parses each critic's style, ideas, temperament, politics, and emotional valence it's almost as though he's broadcasting color at a boxing match. And he's no slouch himself when it comes to piquant and exacting language and thought as he analyzes Sontag's mutability, austerity, and iciness versusael's puckishness, abundance, and pugnacity. 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 interpretative writing. --Donna Seaman Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

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. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Library Journal Review

This examination of Susan Sontag's and Pauline Kael's careers is an ambitious attempt to place side by side the lives of two revered critics who are, in essence, very different people. Seligman, who has worked as an editor at The New Yorker and, explores Sontag's philosophical and political sides, the activism and public persona that result, and her various literary styles. By comparison, Kael comes off as one-dimensional, which, owing to the overwhelming achievement of her work as a film critic, may prompt readers to ask, "Why the comparison?" Seligman explores his own responses to Sontag as a writer and a person in more depth. He has never actually met Sontag (or wanted to), yet he was intimately acquainted with Kael, which may explain his reluctance to evaluate her work critically. The best part of this unusual exploration is the high quality of the language: Seligman illuminates his subjects' writing through choice quotes and passages. On the other hand, given this fluidity, the reader is more interested in turning pages instead of lingering on what's been read, just to see if Seligman's thoughts bear out. In the end, Seligman does not convince us that his intended comparison/contrast is valid though he does manage to convey why Sontag and Kael matter as much as they do. Recommended for all academic libraries. Maria Kochis, California State Univ. Lib., Sacramento (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.