Some people worship operatic divas or movie stars, but for Craig Seligman, it’s the female critics that leave him weak-kneed. Two specific female critics, actually: Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael. Although Seligman gracefully sketches the similarities between the women (both Jewish single moms raised in the West who took on pop culture), he also concocts a kind of imaginary catfight in his head. They reigned as two of the most prominent and influential intellectuals of the late 20th century while keeping their distance. Yet Seligman contrasts the two as a way of working through his ambivalent feelings about the women, their work, and the art of criticism in general.
Sontag & Kael is deeply personal—a quality both exhilarating and maddening, as Seligman grapples with his own blind spots. He quickly points out that these critics do not get equal billing in his heart: “I revere Sontag. I love Kael.” Kael, whom he befriended late in her life, was a consummate stylist, funny and off-the-cuff, American to the core, whereas Sontag’s list of crimes includes being “elitist and condescending toward those less informed than she is (i.e., everybody)” and basically “not . . . likable.” He points out that Sontag has no higher term of praise than “serious,” whereas Kael used the word as a term of derision; Sontag agonizes over every word, whereas Kael refused to do so. Self-flagellating Sontag is always “justifying her pleasure,” but good old Kael apparently never justified anything (including reviews that were perceived as being either anti-Semitic or homophobic).
“In my scale of enthusiasms,” Seligman writes, “Kael’s humanity and her virtuosity trump Sontag’s loftiness, and it’s a constant temptation to use Kael as a cudgel to bonk the smirk of self-esteem off Sontag’s face with.” Of course, you could say the same about James Wood or any number of “serious” male critics. Since when has likability been on the list of job requirements for intellectuals? As much as I agree with many of the charges against Sontag, it seems to me a strange approach to criticism, judging work by whom you’d rather hang out with. However, in his own love-hate way, Seligman does revere Sontag, and so even after his most damning comments, he gallantly steps back and smooths things over. Playful and passionate, he sets dozens of ideas spinning but comes to few conclusions, preferring instead (as Sontag wrote of Walter Benjamin) to “keep his many ‘positions’ open.”