Two Cherished Critics, An Engrossing Odd Couple

Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me , by Craig Seligman. Counterpoint, 192 pages, $23.

Great critics are usually controversial; it’s hard to defy accepted thinking and not be. The converse, however, isn’t true: Controversial critics aren’t reliably great. To endure as more than an academic footnote, it’s not enough to have provoked or influenced. Somehow, you have to engage readers persistently. So far, Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael (who died in 2001) pass the test.

These days, Ms. Sontag is an infrequent critic. But her ambitious and wide-ranging body of work remains relevant-witness her damning New York Times Magazine essay on torture at Abu Ghraib. Even at her weakest, she’s formidable. As for Kael, not even her most devoted admirer ever read her film reviews in The New Yorker without violently disagreeing with them at some point. But that’s exactly why you read them, too.

The two writers make an odd pair; one rarely mentions them in the same breath. There’s something a little crazy about throwing them together, as Craig Seligman has in his new book, Sontag & Kael: Opposites Attract Me . The gamble pays off, however, in both insight and enjoyment. Equal parts homage, biography, criticism and personal account, Sontag & Kael is refreshingly unconventional.

Although Mr. Seligman calls them opposites, the two women do share certain traits. One of the most significant is how they infuriate people and take pleasure in it. Their detractors are numerous and often vehement. A forewarning, then: Sontag & Kael isn’t likely to appeal to anyone who recoils instinctively at the title.

Mr. Seligman wisely admits to his own bias, which also happens to be his central theme, right from the start. “I revere Sontag. I love Kael,” he notes. This is another way of saying he prefers Kael, idolizes her even. When he finds fault, it’s almost always with Ms. Sontag. Her elitism can be aggravating, her style “formal and rather icy.” Yet despite her being “intensely problematic,” he “can’t get enough of her.” In many ways, the book is an attempt to come to grips with the conflicting feelings Ms. Sontag provokes in him.

Ultimately, however, the spirit of Sontag & Kael is generous. Mr. Seligman wants to share his passion for both writers. It’s certainly never in doubt: Like many critics, he owes a great stylistic debt to Kael-but he hasn’t been stunted by it. His brisk prose is engaging; his arguments are well presented. At first glance, the book appears looser and more discursive than it really is. Never made explicit, the underlying framework-an interweaving of the chronological with the topical-only emerges after you’re fairly far along.

Throughout, the principal modus operandi is contrast. The author regards his two subjects, both of whom have influenced him profoundly, as “perfect foils.” Each helps bring the other into vivid focus. If, for example, both women are out to challenge the reader, their methods are quite different. Kael, “a natural iconoclast,” does so by assertion and with unwavering conviction; Ms. Sontag, more uncertain and more “contrarian,” achieves her results by philosophical questioning. She is “a supreme example of the troubled consciousness.”

Taken separately, such observations are coolly astute. Combine them, however, and they produce an extra degree of heat. They also have the potential to set a chain reaction of further comparison in motion. Much of Sontag & Kael consists of this sort of running interplay.

The technique sounds easier than it is. Just counterbalancing two such imposing figures is tricky; going head to head with them is harder still. One way Mr. Seligman avoids being dwarfed is by allowing Ms. Sontag and Kael to effectively neutralize one another, like equal opposing forces. And though he can’t quite match them stylistically, he provides plenty of striking phrases of his own.

Mr. Seligman was friendly with Kael-a complication, but a valuable one. His anecdotes about her give us a rounded appreciation of her character. At one point she told him, “I only think with a pencil in my hand,” which perfectly captures how she operates.

So who is this book for? Obviously, longtime Sontag and Kael readers are at the top of the list, but anyone with a degree of familiarity with either writer should be drawn in. It’s even possible to enjoy it as a primer. Mr. Seligman is good at delivering basic information with a subtle touch. Here, for example, is one of the distinctions he draws between the two critics: “Kael is a reviewer down to her toes; her responses are specific. Sontag is an aesthetic theorist, if not always a systematic one.” Elsewhere in the same vein, we get: “Kael discovered that in writing about film she could write about everything. Sontag’s ambition to write about everything seems practically unbounded.”

In his final chapter, Mr. Seligman declares: “Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith.” The aphorism is deployed in defense of his subjects, neither of whom ever pulled a punch. But what of the author? Is there a chance he’s too nice to this odd couple that so preoccupies him? The question would be more pointed if his project were straightforward criticism. Even so, he generally lives up to his own standard. He’s not reluctant to cite their flaws or question their judgment-which makes his praise all the more convincing.

Whatever else may be said of them, Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael are never pedantic. Neither is Craig Seligman-yet another reason why he’s such an excellent guide to their work.

D.W. Young, a freelance writer in New York, is at work on a novel. Two Cherished Critics, An Engrossing Odd Couple