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 notpretty.com, 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.]