“One always wants to be read by as many people as possible,” Lee Siegel said.
Mr. Siegel was on the phone-after a bit of coaxing-to discuss his new job as book critic for The Nation. He has signed on to write 10 pieces for the stalwart liberal weekly in 2005, at some 2,500 to 4,000 words each.
Landing in The Nation is not quite the same, as mass-market triumphs go, as grabbing a Reader’s Digest or TV Guide gig. Still, the magazine’s circulation has reportedly grown to a heady-for-a-liberal-opinion-journal 185,000, thanks to the strength of its anti-Bush-administration market niche.
That’s three times the circulation of the critic’s old outlet, The New Republic. Except Mr. Siegel isn’t turning his back on his previous readership, either. He will remain The New Republic’s television writer, as before-writing more or less weekly for the magazine’s Web site, plus eight or nine longer pieces a year for the print edition.
“I’m on staff as the TV critic,” Mr. Siegel said. ” … Everything’s the same.”
Circulation isn’t the only thing dividing Mr. Siegel’s two masters. Beyond the marching John Kerry endorsements, the party-line Nation and the anti-party-line-party-line New Republic view each other with subtly graded degrees of disdain: Manhattan elites versus inside-the-Beltway wonks. The current issue of The Nation features a piece denouncing New Republic editor Peter Beinart’s recent manifesto on the direction of liberalism; the New Republic Web site, in turn, features two pieces denouncing Mr. Beinart’s article.
Mr. Siegel dismissed the notion that there was any challenge in working for the wary rivals. “It’s not as if in 1952 Boris Pasternak suddenly got a contract to be the poetry editor of The New Yorker while living in Moscow,” Mr. Siegel said.
Sure. But is there anyone besides Mr. Seigel eligible to show up at both magazines’ next round of holiday gatherings? “Probably,” Mr. Beinart wrote in an e-mail, “but I’m not sure I could name them off the top of my head.”
At the moment, Mr. Siegel is working on a piece for The Nation about David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood and is keeping an eye on cable television to figure out what his next New Republic piece should be.
Oh … and there’s his piece about sculptor Isamu Noguchi in the works for Slate-where he’s about to become the regular, twice-a-month art critic.
“He’s doing something very brave,” New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier said, on the phone while traveling in Chicago. “He’s trying to earn a living as a freelance intellectual.”
Mr. Wieseltier said he’s unconcerned about Mr. Siegel’s decision to start wearing so many hats. “I come from a tradition in which you’re not supposed to have your head uncovered,” Mr. Wieseltier said.
Mr. Siegel, Mr. Wieseltier said, has always expressed admiration for “the versatility of the old New York Jewish intellectuals.”
Flexibility is not the same as pliability. “My sensibility is fixed, alas,” Mr. Siegel said. “It’s not going to change.”
Nation readers curious about their new book critic’s sensibility can pick up last week’s New Yorker, in which a 2003 quote by Mr. Siegel provides the sour note in John Lahr’s 9,000-word profile of playwright Tony Kushner. Where other critics had hailed Mr. Kushner’s Angels in America as a work of genius, Mr. Siegel greeted its televised version as “a second-rate play written by a second-rate playwright who happens to be gay” (“And the Bandwagon Plays On,” his review added in a flourish).
“The thing about Lee,” Mr. Wieseltier said, “is that he’s a pathological truth-teller, and I don’t expect that he’ll write anything he doesn’t believe.”
Mr. Siegel is “almost certain to infuriate some of our readers, which is a good thing,” said Adam Shatz, The Nation’s literary editor.
Mr. Shatz took over the back of the magazine in April 2003, inheriting, he said, a “very sleepy” book section-”a slog to get through.” So he cut back on the academic contributors, he said, and sought to bring in more professional writers, who would be more inclined to write essays instead of straight reviews.
And when he found out that Mr. Seigel-or a portion of Mr. Siegel-was available, he snapped him up.
“I wanted to bring Lee on board because his voice isn’t like anything else in the magazine, and because I thought he would stir things up,” Mr. Shatz said. ” … Broadly speaking, we share the same values, but he’s more willing to offend and to piss people off. And I think that can only make the magazine more exciting, more surprising, more entertaining-even if he does get under the skin of some of our readers.”
Mr. Wieseltier agreed, within reason, that there’s been improvement in The Nation’s culture coverage. “It’s getting better, but I don’t exactly feel threatened by it, either,” he said. “[It] does not have a recent rich history in the back pages.”
“If the back pages get better, then good for all of us,” he said.
Assuming, that is, that Mr. Siegel can keep filling everyone’s back pages at his accelerated pace. The more regular assignments he gets, Mr. Siegel said, “the more structured my life is, and the easier it is to discipline myself.”
“The work is manageable, or I wouldn’t have taken it on,” he said.
Mr. Siegel said he’s looking forward to being able to think and write about books and TV at the same time. “I think if you’re trying to reflect seriously on stuff, then you reflect in different keys, in different modes,” he said.
Doing TV criticism, he said, means “you’re more directly in touch with what’s happening in the culture.” Reviewing books, he said, means “swimming in deeper waters, but in waters more removed from cultural immediacy.”
At a time when other critics are putting up blogs to express their pressing, off-topic thoughts about bird-watching or foreign policy, Mr. Siegel’s new arrangement allows him to write professionally on a triangular range of different fields. “It’s a dream come true if you’re a culture critic,” he said.
Genres are blurring into each other, anyway, Mr. Siegel added. The “gravitational pull” of movies-one medium that’s not directly on his beat-is influencing all the other arts, he said. “I’ll be writing about books that have to do with movies,” he said. ” … As a TV critic, I have to refer to film.” And as an art critic? “I can write about anything,” he said.
“Maybe the era of specialized critical fields is coming to an end,” Mr. Siegel said. “It probably should.”
But until that day, what does the three-specialty, three-employer critic say over the mojito pitcher, when someone asks what he does?
“I try not to talk about myself at cocktail parties,” Mr. Siegel said. “It’s not that interesting.”
In December, the New York Times sports columnist Murray Chass proudly identified himself as one of the people “who do not subscribe to the ‘Moneyball’ approach to baseball, the theories laid out in the book that celebrates Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics.”
The theories of Mr. Beane, Oakland’s general manager, essentially say that certain time-honored statistical measures-such as batting average-are not the best tools for evaluating baseball players. As explained by author (and Times contributor) Michael Lewis, that principle allows a savvy executive to use more advanced and esoteric statistics to build a more cost-effective team.
Mr. Chass was sniping at Mr. Beane’s team for missing the playoffs and being forced to cut payroll; earlier in the year, he’d identified the same foolish, newfangled stat-headedness as the fatal flaw of the (oops!) Boston Red Sox.
But crusty as he may seem, Mr. Chass is no foe to innovative baseball analysis. Indeed, he’s something of a pioneer of creative argument. In 2001, for instance, he warned readers not to be misled by the fact that the Boston Red Sox had the best team earned-run average in the American League. If you subtracted the contribution of its best pitcher, Pedro Martinez, Mr. Chass explained, Boston’s pitching staff would only rank second- or fourth-best. (And if you throw out Texas, John Kerry is our next President.)
A strategic indifference to reality is the hallmark of New York sportswriting. Last week, The Times’ Howard Beck bravely declared that journeyman Knicks center Nazr Mohammed, averaging 12.5 points per game at the time, was “squarely in the conversation” about potential All-Stars.
No other sportsie, however, can match Mr. Chass’ gifts for unhitching his reasoning from the plodding facts. So, in his honor of his most startling departures, Off the Record officially unveils the occasional Murray Chass Watch.
To ring in the New Year, Mr. Chass decided it was time to take on the entire baseball establishment-or at least the 74 percent of veteran baseball writers who had declined the opportunity to elect pitcher Jack Morris to the Hall of Fame last year.
“[W]ith the career Morris had, why has he been so relatively ignored?” Mr. Chass asked.
As evidence of Mr. Morris’ “dominance,” Mr. Chass noted that he had won 162 games in the 80′s, more than any other pitcher. “But,” Mr. Chass added, “figured differently, he went through two other 10-year periods in which he won even more games, 173 from 1979 through 1988 and 169 from 1983 through 1992.
“No one questions Roger Clemens’s credentials for the Hall of Fame, but the most victories he had in a 10-year period was 166.”
Attention, Hall of Fame voters! Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Roger Clemens.
Unless, that is, you count how many games Mr. Morris lost in the 80′s: 119, which means his annual average record for the decade was about 16-12-respectable, workmanlike, and not at all dominant.
In Mr. Clemens’ best 10-year span, as measured by Mr. Chass, he only lost 89 games. Then there are those old, prosaic measurements: Mr. Clemens has won 328 games to Mr. Morris’ 254. Mr. Clemens has also won seven Cy Young Awards; Mr. Morris never finished higher than third for the award. Mr. Morris never led the league in winning percentage or earned-run average; Mr. Clemens led in each, three and six times respectively.
In one respect, however, Mr. Chass’ piece was perfectly correct. Based on previous balloting, he predicted that Mr. Morris “will be among the vast majority of players … who will not have been elected.” Tuesday, Mr. Morris got 172 votes, 215 short of the requirement for enshrinement.
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