(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As Craig Seligman's subtitle suggests, his counterpointing of Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael is a personal choice. There is no particular reason that these two writers demand this kind of treatment in a book, except that they have profoundly influenced this critic, who chooses to write about them. Kael became a friend of Seligman, and his prose is liveliest when he portrays his memories of her. Seligman makes a point of emphasizing that he never met Sontag (who died in late 2004) and did not invite such an encounter, although it could have been easily arranged. Sontag stands in Seligman's consciousness as an aloof figure whose remoteness enhances her power and authority as a writer but also blinds her to the personal implications of some of her arguments.

Seligman not only realizes that Sontag and Kael are very different kinds of writers, but his book also implies that a proper critical consciousness ought to encompass—even if it cannot reconcile—their quite different approaches to art. Kael is at her best discussing individual films, allowing her critical criteria to arise out of the individual works on which she comments. Sontag, on the other hand, rarely focused on individual works of art in any significant detail. She tended to take a much broader view of art in its cultural context. Indeed, she shied away from the term “critic,” as she did not see it as her task to judge works of art but rather to evoke their resonance. Her famous essay “Against Interpretation” exhorts critics to probe the sensuous properties of art and the forms that artists create rather than dissecting art for its content or message. Kael, however, derived great energy from praising and condemning films. Where these two writers are alike, perhaps, and where Seligman sees a convergence, is in the very enthusiasm for art that each writer, in her different way, is able to convey.

Perhaps because Seligman had not met Sontag, his view of her seems reverential. Whereas Kael appears in delightful anecdotes that capture her everyday affect as a person, Sontag remains distant and pristine. Indeed, any view that might shatter his iconic image of Sontag is treated with disdain. She is not beyond literary criticism—indeed Seligman surveys her faults—but any inspection of her motivations alarms him: “The charge that Sontag has used her beauty to further her career is drivel; the essays collected in Against Interpretation would have made a warthog famous. But she has used her beauty, and in the right way: to make herself interesting photographically.”

Later on, Seligman reveals that in making such statements, he has in mind a certain “hostile, inept biography,” Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (2001), by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, the title of which he fails to mention in order to make the point that its “single selling point was its documentation of her love affairs.” The singular weakness of Seligman's book is that it does not take into account the considerable body of critical commentary that shows how she merged her iconic status with her role as cultural commentator. Some of this commentary is indeed hostile to Sontag, but much of it admires the way in which she fused her person and her work while maintaining the high quality of her perceptions and her prose.

Seligman's treatment of Kael is more down-to-earth. Perhaps because of his friendship with Kael, he does not seem to be troubled—indeed he does not seem to notice—that like Sontag, Kael had to negotiate her way through the demands of art and commerce, writing, most of the time, for weekly deadlines set by The New Yorker.

The idea that Sontag is, in part, the creation of commerce enrages Seligman, who wants to view her in purely literary terms. Biographies that actually show writers engaged in career-making—Marion Meade's Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin (2004) is an excellent analysis of the business of writing—are apt to be dismissed as vulgar because writers are shown to have mixed motivations. They want to write well...

(The entire section is 1656 words.)