Are You Serious? reviewed: Lee Siegel's winning tour of seriousness in American culture.

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2011 6:29 AM

This Is a Serious Book Review

Lee Siegel's winning tour of seriousness in American culture.

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Which leaves us in our current state of affairs, with the "vigorous unfolding of seriousness and serious anti-seriousness" stalled. The awesome speed, reach, and flexibility of the Internet to promote and deflate any trend, person, or mood have left us grasping for a sense of what is serious. Siegel has several eccentric examples, some stronger than others, but let's look at John Updike. Late in his career, the celebrated author of the Rabbit tetralogy became a target of attacks by the likes of David Foster Wallace and James Wood for publishing too much (and crowding out others). "Strangely, it was the vital constituents of Updike's seriousness—his remarkable productivity, his graphomaniacal compulsion to annotate every lush detail of existence—that had been one of his detractor's chief grievances," writes Siegel.

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What Siegel sees in Updike's story is an anxiety about the state of the novel: Updikean seriousness stood in contrast to the decline of the novel's seriousness—its loss of cultural importance. We are still serious about movies and music, in the sense that people are moved to discuss and debate them, but less so about literature. Siegel's challenge: Name a novel that has moved you in the last year as a novel did in high school or college. The new generation's disdain for Updike was given more fuel by his dimissal of the Internet, which he called an "electronic anthill." The pounding that Updike took belied a deeper concern: It's easier to criticize a fogey-ish stance than it is to reinvigorate the novel—to make it serious again.

The irony, according to Siegel, is that even as Updike has been put in the attic, writers themselves have become too serious, too professional and too self-consciously literary in style in a quest to separate their work from the common language of OMG and WTF. To be serious is tricky: An artist has to find the vital path between musty seriousness and worthless silliness. Pixar has done it, so has Stephen Colbert.

I've only pulled at a few of the provocative strings in Siegel's book. His argument that Sarah Palin is someone who has signaled seriousness by being willing to humiliate herself on reality TV makes a wild sort of sense. At other times, Siegel floats some nonsense that he knows to be silly.

But I don't want to leave you hanging without providing Siegel's answer to the question of finding seriousness in life. He gives us his "three pillars": attention, purpose, continuity. That could mean being a really competent lawyer. Or being so skilled at being a pilot that you land a plane on the Hudson and save everyone onboard. Or being like Socrates and drinking the hemlock to prove that you believed in your ideas. Just find the thing that makes you "fully alive" and then you're set. Which is to say that although the cultural and political figures we should take seriously change, the prospect of becoming a serious person remains dauntingly unchanged.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.