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Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me Paperback – June 28, 2005

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Counterpoint (June 28, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582433127
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582433127
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.4 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,528,971 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

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 Pauline Kael. Seligman has drunk deeply at the well of both of these seminal and controversial thinkers, but his adoration takes different forms: he loves Kael 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 versus Kael'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 © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

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See all 10 customer reviews
I look forward to reading more books by him.
B. McCaughey
Like Seligman, I am fond of both of these cultural critics.
Doug Anderson
Until that happens, pick up this great little book.
Jon Morris

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Doug Anderson VINE VOICE on September 19, 2008
Format: Paperback
Sontag was a thinker, and she is at her best when writing about other thinkers (Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes). Had she been an academic, she would have taught theory. Language was never an end in itself for her (as it was for Barthes), but rather a means to a political or a spiritual end (temperamentally she identified with Benjamin).

The lasting appeal of Kael lay in the way she unapologetically valorized her own eccentricities of judgment and taste. Even when you don't agree with her (which, for me, is often) it is impossible not to listen to her. I think her lasting importance is that she gave people permission to live in their own sensibilities. She had no real agenda, just an abiding love of visual pleasure that verged, at times, on the fetishistic.

The superficial appeal of Sontag was her ability to make intellectual rigor seem glamorous; but more lasting is her ability to make the intellectual life still seem viable (even in an age of mass culture). For Sontag I think intellectual pursuit was a framing device for her life, it was her way of living with dignity in an undignified age.

Like Seligman, I am fond of both of these cultural critics. I actually came into contact with Sontag one evening when she came into a Miami bookstore. I was behind the counter that night, it was late, near closing, the store was empty except for her. She bought three books --all obscure European authors. At the time I knew who she was (from the iconic black and white photographs of her that appeared in various literary periodicals, and from her appearance in ZELIG) but hadn't yet read her many books of essays and her novels that I began reading thereafter.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Steiner VINE VOICE on December 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Craig Seligman's highly enjoyable dialectic study of critics/intellectuals Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael who enjoyed considerable attention during the 60's and 70's. Seligman elegantly contrasts the two writers, Sontag the intellectual and Kael the fervent populist. He's pretty straightforward in his preference for Kael as a film critic, although he does acknowledge that Sontag was far from a purely devoted film critic, as she also wrote novels and essays on photography, literature, politics, and pretty much anything else you can think of, therefore the comparison isn't exactly fair.

Seligman argues that Sontag was ultimately the greater writer and intellectual, yet he feels that her writing was often too cool and detached, and of course humorless. Kael on the other hand, was a strident iconoclast, she insisted that movies were special in their fusion of pop culture with intelligent artistry, a principle that was made manifest by the likes of Altman, Godard, and DePalma. Yet Kael was no theorist, she spent a great deal of time and garnered much attention in her attack on the auteur theorists like Andrew Sarris and the New Wave critics, she insisted that film aesthetics could not be theorized (a sentiment I for one share), and that a film's quality was more often the product of many talents, not merely the director. Kael's biting criticism made her as many enemies as she had friends; she was attacked by Sarris, by Renata Adler, by Peter Bogdanovich, and later by Jonathan Rosenbaum for her views expressed in her book "Raising Kane." However, Kael was also loved and admired for her witty and personal essays which would leave an impact on David Denby and even influenced the filmmaking of Quentin Tarantino and a number of other prominent directors in recent years.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By HalSF on December 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I turned to this beautiful book again today after hearing the news about Sontag's death, in the aftermath of the mass reproduction of death in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Kael, strangely enough, died a few days before 9/11/01, a similarly huge onrush of mortality. In any case, the entwined biography and criticism of the two women this book undertakes to juxtapose absolutely should not work, but does, in spades. Mandatory reading for anyone who wants a complete and fearless assessment of what Sontag and Kael each achieved, and why they'll remain way cool forever.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Jon Morris on August 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was initially hesitant about buying Sontag & Kael; I had read two reviews, one in The Book Forum (positive), and another in The Atlantic Monthly (more ambivalent). Despite the latter, I decided to buy the book... and what a pleasure it has been to read.

Seligman's look at these two thinkers is balanced and even-handed, but never timid. His textual analysis of the writers' works is erudite, meaningful, and lucid. Yet what is most striking about this work is how passionate the writing is. This is the sort of book that, after you've finished reading it, inspires you to re-read Sontag and Kael.

Short in length (about 200 pages of text), it nonetheless manages not only to provide an overview of Sontag's and Kael's critical ideas and works, but to ask also the big questions: What is art? What is the place of the novel in contemporary society? What is the role of the critic?

Juxtaposing Sontag's and Kael's responses is a fascinating way of thinking through these issues.

For someone who is less familiar with Kael than with Sontag, what I would really like to see would be a Kael Reader, or a collection of her essays. Maybe Seligman will be the one to edit it?

Until that happens, pick up this great little book.
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