Anders in the Flesh

Tobias Wolff’s short story, “Bullet to the Brain” concerns Anders, a critic so removed from the joys and pleasures of life that he is reduced to niggling over every ontological detail. Because of this, reality trumps his existence. The story is unspeakably tragic in its final paragraphs, as we learn that there are pleasures that Anders is incapable of remembering. I don’t know if Lee Siegel has ever read this tale, but his embarrassing appearance at the New York Public Library on Thursday night revealed a sad sack so detached from life that I could not help but empathize, even as he tried to bait me by declaring to the crowd that I wasn’t a writer.

Siegel was there to talk about Against the Machine, a book so ineptly argued that the Washington Monthly‘s Kevin Drum was forced to abandon his review, but not without offering his notes. He was joined by Nicholson Baker and Heidi Julavits. But Siegel dominated the conversation, refusing to let even the moderator Paul Holdengraber, who tried to be as gracious and as patient as he could, finish his questions. Seigel’s entitlement was evident in one petulant exchange late in the talk.

“It’s my goddam book,” pouted Siegel.

“It’s my goddam conversation,” retorted Holdengraber.

It should be observed that Siegel is 50 years old.

When the talk was done, I congratulated Julavits for being “part of the supporting cast.”

Another anti-Internet crusader, Andrew Keen, is at least aware that his tirades are something of an act. But Siegel really seems to believe that the Internet is worse than cancer, poverty, and war combined. A true thinker actually considers an adverse viewpoint or is willing to consider that he might be wrong. Siegel, by contrast, refused to accept Nicholson Baker’s examples of items from the Web that depicted art and beauty. “How can I respond to that?” he barked. When the remarkably patient Holdengraber, casually tossing around references to philosophers, attempted to ask Siegel if there was anything good about the Internet, Siegel merely said that he liked email and Amazon, and that everything else was the morass. (There is a certain hypocrisy here in Siegel’s affinity for Amazon, considering that he rails against the Internet as a commerce-driven medium.) Holdengraber tried to frame this question many times and Siegel grew agitated, insisting that he had already addressed the issue. But I must ask: what kind of human being could not find one shred of joy within billions of offerings?

Only a person thoroughly removed from linguistic pleasures would quibble with the semantics of “assclown.” It was a surprise to me to see Siegel taking umbrage with the term. “Assclown is a really funny word, though,” grinned Nicholson Baker, who did his best to try and get through to the pigheaded Siegel. But it quickly became apparent that Siegel would not be moved and I watched with some sadness as the cheery, ruddy-faced Baker shifted to profound and silent empathy for this lost soul.

Lee Siegel belongs to that miserable genus of people who defecate upon any pleasure, tear up any moment of beauty, and who cannot locate the capacity to understand another person’s thoughts or feelings. You’ve probably met a few in your time. And like them, Siegel’s a lesson on how not to live. During the Q&A session, the good Levi Asher tried to engage Siegel in a gracious manner, pointing out that the New Republic hostilities might have been troubling because they at long last revealed what his readers really thought of him. A woman attempted to respond to his points in a fair-minded manner. But Siegel would have none of this. Unable to argue competently, he proceeded to dismiss specific terms and thoughtful angles that others presented. Siegel seemed unaware that such an attitude often causes setbacks.

Spiegel spewed out more straw men than a scarecrow population on a three hundred acre pumpkin patch. At one point, Baker suggested that Siegel once had a fascination with the Internet, pointing out that he had written many articles for Slate.

“That’s a fine conceit,” responded Siegel. “That’s one of the things that makes you a great novelist. Your negative capability.”

“Negative capability? What does that mean?” asked a baffled Holdengraber.

Where Baker hinted at the fun of all of us becoming filterers because of the Internet, Siegel snapped, “I don’t need more filtering.” Ever the hypocrite, Siegel said that the Internet was laden with false personas, but bristled when asked about the sprezzatura incident. He bemoaned being called “asshole,” “douchebag,” “fucktard,” and “shithole” on the New Republic. Being called a pedophile was the last straw. (Never mind that Siegel once called James Kincaid a pedophile.) “They all had it in for me,” cried Siegel. He wanted to give them a taste of their own medicine.

“No,” said Baker, “you cannot overlap.” Baker pointed out that Siegel using the third person while pretending not to be himself went beyond the boundaries of acceptability.

Unable to offer anything of substance, Siegel then began employing inept humor. “My BlackBerry is hooked up to my heart with wires, and to my testicles. I’m on Amazon all the time, and when my numbers go up, I get an erection.”

Siegel had a few supporters in the crowd, but there was, for the most part, an uncomfortable silence after this witless barb, as if they had just observed David Brent dancing.

I now find myself staring at my many notes and feeling extremely sad. Should I tell you about Siegel’s casual racism directed at Indian call centers? Should I tell you about the way that Siegel dismissed Baker’s praise for, a now defunct blog written by an overweight woman trying to make sense of her place in the world, by wondering why anyone would trouble with such pedantic thoughts? Should I trouble you with Siegel’s condemnation of 2 Girls 1 Cup, which he declared the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of the Internet? (And what makes Siegel the final arbiter of what people find interesting? What gives him the right to judge?)

All this nastiness from Siegel overshadowed Baker’s sense of wonder at the photos taken by a tethered camera or Heidi Julavits’s giddy confession of looking up diseases on the Internet to abate her hypochondria. Spiegel’s spite spoiled what should have been an evening of meaningful discussion.

Siegel frequently suggested that criticism of the Internet is a good thing. I think it is too. But when you openly rail against the Web using only a few bad examples without offering a single example of anything that’s good, it’s a fallacy of insufficient statistics. It isn’t a logical position.

I’m tempted to damn Siegel on these pages. But that would involve feeding the very bitterness that Siegel thrives on. So instead, I’ll simply declare Siegel a sad and incurable Anders. A man who might one day find his assumptive illogic greeted by a far less forgiving thug and who will never remember the joys that made him a writer in the first place.

[4/16 UPDATE: In a related story, Portfolio’s Jeff Bercovici reports that Lee Siegel is terrified of talking to anybody who even remotely criticizes him. Furthermore, the Bookscan number for Against the Machine, as of yesterday, is a mere 3,038 copies.]


  1. I’d love to hear critics condemn the entire biosphere because most of it is fungi and bacteria…

    “Nature? Don’t get me started about Nature! Animals are using every inch of it as their personal toilet!”

  2. Spiegel seems to be the kind of guy who would be happier and able to see the good side of things (and not just focus on the bad) if he got laid a lot more. His kind of professional grumpiness, if not an act or pose to create a writerly persona, is of a type — a sexually frustrated, unloved, non-intimate person. He requires more pity than derision or engagement. Leave him alone to find love somewhere.

  3. Siegel’s an idiot, but negative capability is a pretty basic concept in criticism – not knowing it is like not knowing about Romanticism.

  4. rilkefan, I think Holdengraber knows what negative capability means. It’s just that Holdengraber might have been confused as to why Siegel is even using the term to respond to a pretty basic query that doesn’t have anything to do with Holengraber’s alleged negative capability.

    Took me two minutes to write this post. That’s literally all the time I’m going to spend this year thinking about Lee Siegel, assclown.

  5. That dude’s fifty?! I’ve always assumed he wsa in his late twenties or mid-thirties at the most, and that he’d lose a bit of his bitter edge when he matured (though most folks lose that bitter cynicism when they reach adulthood). But I guess that twit is pretty set in his ways and is likely to just get more bitter as time goes by.

    Poor, poor Lee Siegel. He’s his own worst enemy. He hates us all because he hates himself so much and blames us all for that.

  6. Great post and perspective. I’m envious you got to see Baker, even under the toxic cloud of sprezzatura. I’ve known a few Anderses myself. Going to read that story now, thanks.

  7. Exactly; if Holdengraber is hosting such conversations and throwing out philosophical ideas, he should be able to discuss negative capability, which is, in a few words, the capacity to be openminded and not believe that every issue has a resolution. Keats is its formulator, but it can be found in the work, as he noted, of Shakespeare, as well as countless other figures like Eliot, Stevens, Bishop, and so on. That said, based on his rants and shenanigans as “sprezzatura,” Siegel is an ass and a clown, which does justice to neither, I realize.

  8. To address the “negative capability” issue, I should note that Holdengraber was tossing around references to the likes of Wolfgang Schivelbusch at the talk. Keats did indeed come up. I think Holdengraber — who is no dummy — wanted to see if Siegel knew what he was talking about.

  9. All the same, citing “negative capability” in response to that point seems a fine bit of bafflegab, as it travels remarkable distances to a very silly place just to avoid Baker’s point.

    “What does that mean?” is an eminently reasonable response to any non sequitir tossed triumphantly into a discussion.

  10. Siegel being in his twenties? The man complained about people wearing baseball caps to movies. Siegel is a small-minded octogenarian in an old man’s body.

  11. “Negative Capability,” coined by Keats, is not “the capacity to be openminded and not believe that every issue has a resolution.” You may be thinking of “in utramque partem,” which is the rhetorical practice of arguing a point from different sides.

    Negative capability isn’t even applicable to non-fiction work; it’s the capacity of a novelist to lose himself/herself in her or her work, so that the “author” becomes imperceptible to the reader.

  12. I suspect he’s lonely (Siegel, that is). Everything he writes about himself suggests that he interacts with the world primarily as a detached spectator.

    Not being able to control how and by whom he’s seen and responded to must have been really terrifying for him. It isn’t much of a wonder he tried to game the conversation.

  13. During my 14 minutes of fame, I got a call from a TV station who wanted me to “debate” the other anti-Internet crusader, Andrew Keen.

    I read up about him and his book and realized that he was just playing the contrary game for fun and profit. Of course I would have walked right into an ambush with the TV cameras rolling so they could sit back and watch a blogger be destroyed.The TV and radio media don’t REALLY want to cover themselves but they are happy to show a dust up of two people fighting it out about the internet.

    The internet has sucked billions of dollars out of the world of print and the record business. Soon it will suck more out of the TV and movie business. When we start sucking money out of the radio industry they will hit back, and hard. We need to prepare for it. They will bring out anyone who can make an “Internet Bad, Books/TV/Radio good” argument, because this person supports their economic model. They support a world that has been questioned by us. Keen appealed to this group that is being questioned by people on the Internet.

    I’m not an intellectual. I’m not a good debater. I don’t enjoy arguing for arguing sake. I’m much more interested in figuring out how to move people to action and to make an impact through my words and deeds.

    And luckily my desire to stay private saved me in this case. If I indulged in my desire to be ON TV I would have been chewed up and spit out by Keen.

    I appreciate the reasons why you did not destroy Siegel, but I do like to read how people who ARE intellectual and DO enjoy arguing for arguing sake take these people down. I learn a lot. You are doing the rest of us a favor when you show the logic holes, when you explain why he didn’t make a case for his views because if you don’t do it these people go onto be quoted by other people who CAN’T and WON’T attack them. Rush Limbaugh is not an intellectual. He is not a journalist. Yet he creates lots of narratives and provides them to the world so they can be repeated over and over until he forces us to discuss them. And the media listen to him (and Drudge) and think “This is what the American people want to be discussing!”

    One group that is especially important to reach are TV and Radio producers. Right Wing TV and radio producers especially. They have a greater influence that most people realize.

    The press have abdicated their responsibility to debate the people in power. Right wing tv and radio have NEVER even believed that it is their job to question the people in power. Instead they feel it is their job to question the people who question the people in power. And they get away with it by calling it “entertainment”

    I look to smarter people like you on the internet and better writers than me to help me put these people in their place with solid logic and rhetorical skills. I look to you for good metaphors and stories to use when I’m trying to create new narratives for the press to use.

    I see that in this story about Siegel that he (like lots of talk radio hosts) aren’t willing to play by the rules of intelligent debate. And when that happens you realize that you can’t just destroy his arguments you need to go out side of the frame and work to point out the overall problems with the person.

    I felt that the next step is to remove the financial support from these people. I feel that they are very bad for society and our discourse. And since there is absolutely no desire for them to have a real conversation I feel I have no need to apologize for my efforts to take away their financial support. I rejected the fiction of “fair and balanced” and the fiction that they want to have a conversation.

    It’s just business to them, but for the true believers it is a source of pat arguments that they use to make their terrible choices in leaders and policy real.

    One thing that I would love for the intellectuals here to do is to think about how to get to Feith and Yoo. You might be able to argue with them at book signings. Don’t settle for his convoluted reasons for the war. He is an professor and an intellectual (or at least he plays one) and he needs to be challenged as such. And for those of you who know that you can beat him in and argument and you then realize that it just doesn’t matter, he will get away with it, start thinking about how to hold him accountable in other fashions.

    Since I’m not trained in the skill of rhetoric, I’ll be looking at where he is violating the ethics code of Georgetown. I’ve asked people to uncover Yoo’s conflicts of interest with the university and money. But it would be nice to also have people working to beat their reasons and their actions. Because there are a bunch of people who aren’t a smart who have large microphones who will keep pushing the lies.

  14. I am interested in neither Siegel nor Holdengraber, but it is not necessary to paraphrase Keats. Here is the relevant selection from his letters.

    “Brown and Dilke walked with me and back from the Christmas pantomime. I had not a dispute but a disquisition, with Dilke on various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason-Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

    — John Keats, 21 December 1817.

  15. ‘At one point, Baker suggested that Siegel once had a fascination with the Internet, pointing out that he had written many articles for Slate.

    “That’s a fine conceit,” responded Siegel. “That’s one of the things that makes you a great novelist. Your negative capability.”’

    Presumably Siegel meant his supposed n.c. allowed him to have a flexible relationship with the net. What’s actually funny about the remark is that his book on the net is (as reviewed) devoid of that quality.

  16. Lee Siegel doesn’t seem to be very comfortable living in our freedom-loving democracy, but sounds like he’d be more suited to chairing a Chinese Communist Internet censorship board, or a censorship board in one of the Islamicist-ruled countries, where only one ideology is allowed and promoted as the one and only “true” ideology, and all variety and diversity are viewed as a threat to the governing tyrants and their desire for absolute control over everything and everyone within their iron-fisted reach. In our democratic society, Lee Siegel is like a fascist fish out of water.

  17. the “internet” showed that it isn’t that hard to be smarter than lee siegel and exposed lee siegel as a fraudulent assclown. so to lee seigel, the internet is bad, bad, bad.

  18. Ed, I have to make a point here about the blinkering nature of the web– by its very nature it opens the world to us and confines us in a tiny room full of all our rancor and succor.

    This Lee Siegel thing is an example. What Siegel doesn’t understand is that the web is a tool of our imprisonment or liberation. It’s all a click away; a different point of view; different subject.

    And the fact that one of the 2 good things Siegel listed was “amazon” puts him on the hit-list of the biblio-mafia… but enough of this.

    Siegel is best ignored, best forgotten (you know the old adage ” not press is bad press”)… Let’s see this thread die and any literary sepuku Seigel does is of the equivalent of the cat-lady-at-the-corner-of-the-street.

    Can we talk about books, not book critics, or whatever the hell Siegel is supposed to be (author? no! What?). What about that “Knockemstiff” by Polack; or the translation of Bolano’s epic “2666”…?

  19. As someone with the name “Anders,” I was surprised to come across this Tobias Wolff story while following a link from Wolcott. I can only wonder what prompted Wolff to choose this name, which is unusual in the US. Does it evoke a dour Scandinavian mien? In any case, I can only hope it doesn’t gain currency as an eponym.

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