The Critic as Pugilist, Champion of High Art

The cultural critic Lee Siegel is known as something of a terror for his slashing, razor-sharp essays and reviews. His

The cultural critic Lee Siegel is known as something of a terror for his slashing, razor-sharp essays and reviews. His savage eloquence has ticked off a lot of folk, and his not entirely deserved reputation as a hatchet man—news flash: There’s plenty of stuff Lee Siegel likes—has a way of setting people off. In the introduction to Falling Upwards, a dazzling miscellany of his writings on art, television, film and literature, Mr. Siegel recalls a cocktail-party encounter with a young literary type who snorted, “Someday someone is going to sue you for the stuff you write, pal,” and then stalked off, leaving Mr. Siegel hanging.

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For Lee Siegel, such bluster is a dispiriting sign of the times: no engagement, no freewheeling back-and-forth—the sine qua non of a healthy intellectual life—just a mischievous jape about seeing the critic in the dock. (In fact, speaking of freewheeling back-and-forth, Mr. Siegel recently endured a dose of public censure and was temporarily suspended from The New Republic—all as a result of his dodgy blogging antics in the midst of a cyberspace contretemps.) Mr. Siegel thinks that for a critic, giving offense is part of the deal. He’s happy to hold up his end, but the rest of us keep letting him down.

Feeling pretty gloomy about the cultural scene, he mounts a sweeping indictment of his contemporaries, dismissing along the way a generation or two of artists, writers and critics. Though he doesn’t name names—which weakens his case—the charges are as follows: an art world obsessed with money; business-savvy cultural producers out for a buck and little else; and a complacent review corps backing the whole thing up by issuing bland, rubber-stamped judgments. Bohemia is just another subsidiary of the Very Big Corporation, Inc.; its motto: “Get your own, and get it fast, and do it behind a virtuous appearance and with an optimistic air.”

The obstacles to unfettered imagination are everywhere: reality TV, memoirs galore, novels propped up by historical “research” (The Da Vinci Code)—all examples of a culture afflicted by a pernicious “art-suspicion.” Fewer and fewer people are willing to submit to the genuinely made-up, to put themselves “in the power of another world—the work of art—and in the power of another person—the artist.”

His complaint is not new: “It seems harder and harder to make a work of art that does not conform to the dictates of the trivializing media,” he fumes, “or that does not follow the lead of marketing experts in direct consultation with gallery owners and book and magazine editors.” Enough of that, he declares: “The critic’s passion should be to expose the shams, the false consciousness, the cleverly accommodating patter that are turning expedience into culture …. [The critic] interprets the work under scrutiny almost as if it were a lesson in freedom, or in some of the ways of being, or not being, free.”

There’s a touch of immodesty—not to say melodrama—to all this hand-wringing: Mr. Siegel as the lonely, embattled man of letters, telling us all like it is, or how it should be, because no one else has the good sense to do so. As for the charge that the cultural world has been corrupted by business values, I’m not sure if this is entirely true. Unless you’re a Jeff Koons (O.K., a fraud) or a Philippe de Montebello or a Jonathan Safran Foer, or a hustling freelancer who writes for high-minded glossies (Lee Siegel, for example), making a living in arts or letters is, trust me, plenty hard, so two cheers for a little entrepreneurial zeal.

Not that he would care either way, but liking Lee Siegel is a bit difficult. You just can’t win with this guy: You either a) don’t get it or b) are part of the problem or c) are obsequiously climbing the ranks. Still, I’m going to go right ahead and praise him. No better, more important collection of criticism than Falling Upwards has been published this year. There’s plenty to deplore out there, and Mr. Siegel hates all the right tendencies—the fatuous reductionism of queer literary theory, the subject of a long essay that showcases Mr. Siegel’s forensic grasp of post-structuralism’s bad habits, or the phony pieties and even worse prose of Barbara Kingsolver, who writes books for people impressed with their own rectitude. Ms. Kingsolver fancies herself a serious writer who grapples with weighty, geopolitical issues, but she’s merely a lightweight who peddles “a potpourri of tried-and-true soppy attitudes that are attached, with demographic precision, to an array of popular causes.” That’s right on.

In the essays themselves, collected mostly from Harper’s, The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly, Mr. Siegel airs his themes with more grace and subtlety than he does in his heavy-handed introduction. In a brilliant appraisal of Saul Bellow, for example, Mr. Siegel uses the career of James Atlas and his ill-fated decision to write Bellow’s biography—a project Mr. Atlas had no business undertaking—as a gauge of careerism in the literary world. Siegel notes that Mr. Atlas was once a fine literary journalist, but he chucked all that aside, becoming an incredibly crass, status-obsessed charlatan with no concern whatsoever for genuine literary value. The Bellow biography proved to be his undoing. Mr. Siegel wonders whether Mr. Atlas was “driven insane by his subject’s cosmic laughter”—whether Bellow’s “wildness,” his “demonic vitality,” could have “curdled” Mr. Atlas’ spirit.

“Demonic vitality”: Mr. Siegel’s criterion for artistic worth invariably turns on such terms. He’s here to tell you that good art—art that matters—is necessarily unruly, unbound by dogma or programmatic concerns. (Can’t be reminded of this too often.) What raises his hackles is “screwing a utilitarian handle on the imagination.” Embracing his inner Lionel Trilling, who famously endorsed “variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty,” Mr. Siegel applauds “‘high’ art” and its “saving complexities”: “Art and literature humanize us into enduring life’s paradoxes and ambiguities, its setbacks, calamities, and disappointments.”

For all of Mr. Siegel’s love of great writers—D.H. Lawrence, Dante and Jane Austen, subject of a tender and original piece of criticism—he’s hardly a Harold Bloom bloviating about the canon. Mr. Siegel is a zigzagging cultural omnivore: He takes on Harry Potter (a hearty thumbs-up), The Sopranos (ditto), and Sex and The City (not buying it). He’s what you might call a confrontational enthusiast. Ever skeptical when a unanimous round of yays or nays goes up, he’s an expert demolisher of critical group-think. On the acclaimed Richard Yates, an important influence on Richard Ford, André Dubus, Richard Russo and Tobias Wolff, among others, Mr. Siegel shows how misguided it is to glibly compare Yates to Hemingway (standard critical M.O.); rather, Yates brought fiction back to naturalism, “from the drama of free will back to the crisis of determining circumstances.”

Two of the best pieces in Falling Upwards—one on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the other on socialist realist painting—show how unpredictable a critic Mr. Siegel is. In the latter, he turns art history upside down, showing how misguided critics have been about a genre wrongly derided as meretricious propaganda. It’s a loving, well-argued bit of advocacy that had me scrambling to get to a museum. As for Eyes Wide Shut, you might think Mr. Siegel would have been a part of the anti-hype brigade that attacked all the gushing about Nicole and Tom that attended the film’s opening. Nope: Mr. Siegel convincingly argues the critics failed to see an authentic example of movie art.

All of this combativeness can make you weary, but he closes his book with a lovely, almost gentle meditation on Chekhov. Still, he can’t resist getting in a few jabs at the conventions of lit-crit. For Lee Siegel, the dukes are always up.

Matthew Price writes for Bookforum and other publications.

The Critic as Pugilist,  Champion of High Art