Reading List: Who’s Your Susan Sontag?

Five longreads about the iconoclastic American writer, director, and activist.

By Brooke Nagler

Susan Sontag elicits reactions. Her provocative essays sparked interest with their genre-remaking form and sweeping claims about 20th-century American culture. In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, for example, her eponymous essay aims to change how we experience art. Rather than intellectualize, we should embody — “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art,” reads its killer line. A woman of endless creative energy (she did not like people to know she slept), in addition to writing essays, she was a film director, activist, and authored fiction. The conversations prompted by her art fiercely propelled her reputation. But it was never just about the work itself, for Sontag’s persona extends far beyond her person. As she shifted our concepts of illness, photography, and visual media, she infected the public with a larger-than-life presence. Her looks, attitude, and mind became a symbol of the “intellectual.” It sufficed for a recognizable Saturday Night Live impression for Julia Sweeney to simply have Sontag’s signature white streak in front of otherwise thick black hair. A white streak — to convey all that Sontag was!

Although a towering thinker, Sontag has always felt accessible to me through her work. I found her as a high schooler on a late fall evening; among the shelves of a colossal Barnes & Noble, Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan caught my eye. The details of my discovery are hazy, but the intensity of its influence persists. At the time, I was just beginning to realize my queerness and consequently at a confused crisis point: The task of rebuilding my sense of self felt overwhelming amidst my new sudden and urgent questions. I was scrambling. Meandering. And suddenly, there was Sontag. Who was she? This beacon of energy, ideas, opinions. A model to propel my imagination. “Inspiration” feels kitschy (she would agree). A stabilizing force around which I could orient.

The pieces in this reading list attest to a similarly personal relationship the writers developed with Sontag. Whether known in real life, or just through her work, she manifests powerfully in individual psyches. Like me, the writers experienced Sontag as a teacher and mentor figure. But the pieces are just as divergent as she was multi-layered. As such, they produce strikingly unique accounts of her impact.

Being a memoir, Nunez’s Sempre Susan was a fitting introduction for me because I connect with writers as people first. The book recounts Nunez’s relationship with Sontag as her mentee, and, for a time, the girlfriend of Sontag’s son, David Rieff. It is vivid in its account, illustrating Sontag in full and taking care to highlight her quirks — her vocabulary habits (“boring, like servile, was one of her favorite words. Another was exemplary. Also, serious.”); her hatred of “art selfishness” (it gave her the utmost glee to share her passions with others); her insatiable desire for socialization and artistic pleasures. (She had a steady stream of houseguests, hated being alone, and was constantly attending film screenings, shows, etc.)

Further, Nunez’s portrait succeeds, where others fail, in representing Sontag’s complexities without reducing her to conclusions. Nunez, for example, documents Sontag’s wittiness — a side that is unfortunately lacking from many other such works. For a woman in the male-dominated field of criticism, respect was not a given. But Sontag’s demand for seriousness has often been overblown, her reputation making her out to be humorless. Nunez attests to a different Sontag; the one-liners speak for themselves. Nunez writes that once, when Sontag was “struggling to finish an essay, angry that we weren’t being supportive enough, she said, ‘if you won’t do it for me, at least do it for western culture.’” Or: In discussing an ex-lover, Sontag “declared that there was only one reason this woman continued to make her suffer each time Susan saw her. ‘If she went around wearing a paper bag over her head, I’d be just fine.’” A hilarious genius was materializing. I needed more.

An excerpt adapted from Nunez’s Sempre Susan can be found here: Suddenly Susan (Sigrid Nunez, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, February 2011).

Luckily, work by and about Sontag is in endless supply. Her posthumously published diaries, Reborn and As Consciousness is Harnessed into Flesh, are a powerful access point. Spanning from her teenage years well into adulthood, they offer a glimpse into how she shaped her mind. Alongside the typical life updates are entries with lists upon lists: words to learn, movies and books to consume, slang from the gay community she picks up (forecasting her later “Notes on Camp”). These document her increasing quest for knowledge, to devour the world whole. She spends pages, too, describing the art that moves her. In response to music, she writes in Reborn at age 15 that “there are fleeting (oh so quickly flown) moments when I know as surely as today is Christmas that I am tottering over an illimitable precipice.” Her curiosity is infectious; as I read the diaries, I decided that I, too, wanted to learn more about everything. And through her clearly outlined process as an auto-didact, I could try.

It’s now been years since that fortuitous trip to Barnes & Noble, but my interest has not waned. Studying her feels like speaking with a childhood friend — even after I have a good sense of her (after all, we’ve spent so much time together), I am struck by something new. And that newness is especially delightful because it readjusts me to her, but softly, within expectations; a friend whose familiarity feels comforting as she grows and changes with each encounter. Reading her short story “Pilgrimage,” for example, endeared me to her sensitive side. The story, though not outright memoir (she was famously “anti-autobiographical”) is based on her teenage encounter with her writer hero, Thomas Mann. The protagonist is an information-greedy girl who keeps lists in her diaries, discusses Stravinsky with her friends on the regular, and yearns to venture past the bounds of her family life. Her meeting with Mann is not what she pictures. She is embarrassed throughout their conversation and frustrated that he does not speak to her like an adult. The encounter disillusions her to the fantasy she had built after feeling transformed by his book. Would meeting Sontag in real life have done the same to me? I like to think some fantasies are better left unbroken.

The New Yorker published “Pilgrimage” in 1987.

“Pilgrimage” is a touching portrayal to read in parallel to the struggling, hard on herself, yet always determined girl in the diaries. For the protagonist comes across so earnest, the adult Sontag handling her younger self with such love. A lesson in reconciling a childhood through fiction, of trying to make herself known within the protection of a story. In fact, all her work — the essays, the fiction, the interviews, the plays, the films, the relationships — speak to her experiments in shaping herself and her mind. Through her, others get to do the same; the writers in this reading list convey Sontag’s importance to their development. In each, I see some of my own connection to Sontag, and hope you find points of relation as well. It’s the thrill of: Me too! The sharing of passions Sontag so enjoyed. But ultimately, our connections with Sontag are personal: For your Sontag won’t be mine.

***

Desperately Seeking Sontag (Terry Castle, London Review of Books, March 2005)

Terry Castle recounts with humor, and alluring detail, her dynamic with Sontag. As she puts it, their relationship was “rather like the one between Dame Edna and her feeble sidekick Madge — or possibly Stalin and Malenkov. Sontag was the Supremo and I the obsequious gofer.” At the time she and Sontag met, Castle was beginning her academic literary career at Stanford, where she teaches to this day. Sontag was already a known entity and Castle fangirled, hard. Their first few encounters were intoxicating, as meeting an idol ought to be, Castle all awe and nerves as she tries to keep up. But over time, their dynamic turned sour, and they lost touch (or, as Castle puts it more bluntly, Sontag lost interest). Regardless of this turn of events, Castle does not turn to derision. What makes the piece stand out is how acutely Castle’s mixed feelings come through. In cultural memory, Castle notes, Sontag’s vivid personality is still missing from the spotlight. With Castle’s short but carefully specific narration, Sontag gets a little more color.

Things proceeded swiftly in our honeymoon phase. Sontag, it turned out, was coming to Stanford for a writer-in-residence stint that spring and the first morning after her arrival abruptly summoned me to take her out to breakfast. The alacrity with which I drove the forty miles down from San Francisco – trying not to get flustered but panting a bit at the wheel nonetheless – set the pattern of our days. We made the first of several madcap car trips around Palo Alto and the Stanford foothills. While I drove, often somewhat erratically, she would alternate between loud complaints – about her faculty club accommodation, the bad food at the Humanities Center, the ‘dreariness’ of my Stanford colleagues (‘Terry, don’t you loathe academics as much as I do? How can you abide it?’) – and her Considered Views on Everything (‘Yes, Terry, I do know all the lesser-known Handel operas. I told Andrew Porter he was right – they are the greatest of musical masterpieces’). I was rapt, like a hysterical spinster on her first visit to Bayreuth. Schwärmerei time for T-Ball.

“Camp is a Sensibility.” On Susan Sontag, Extravagance, and Sexuality (Amelia Abraham, Lit Hub, June 2021)

Queer people often have the experience as children of seeing parts of themselves reflected in others, without knowing that this is what they are seeing. We have a name for it — a “ring of keys” moment — taken from Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home (which has been made into a fabulous musical). Like Bechdel, who as a child is struck with recognition and kinship upon seeing a butch mail carrier, journalist Amelia Abraham recounts how as a child she unconsciously sought representations of camp sensibilities in popular culture. She describes the cultural touchstones, like the aunts in Sabrina the Teenage Witch or the “Homer’s Phobia” episode of The Simpsons, that reflected and embraced her seemingly unconventional preferences. When she finally had a name and language for those tastes upon finding Sontag’s essay “Notes on Camp,” she saw in Sontag a “queer hero.” As Abraham elaborates, Sontag’s relationship with her queerness is complicated. She only outed herself later in life and was reticent to speak about her personal relationships. The well-documented fight between Sontag’s prolific outer world and her tightly-concealed inner world, a tension whose boundaries are impossible to delineate, helped Abraham sort through questions about motives in her own writing career. Returning to different parts of Sontag’s oeuvre as her own life evolves, Abraham sees Sontag as an enduring mentor figure.

Reading Sontag’s essay as a 19-year-old, and one who was grappling with my sexuality, something seemed to slip into place. “Notes on ‘Camp’” not only helped me to grasp the meaning of camp or to explain a lot of my weird cultural tastes, but it gave me something extra. Just months after confronting all of the difficult feelings that came with sleeping with a girl for the first time, in camp, I felt like I had inherited a special gift, a secret language, a very particular kind of humor. Camp felt like a weapon to use against the world when I might find myself up against homophobia—a source of joy in difficult times. But on top of that, I had gained something else. In Sontag, I had found a new queer hero.

Perspicuous Consumption (Wayne Koestenbaum, Artforum, March 2005)

Wayne Koestenbaum parades his eternal devotion to Sontag in this commemoration. A critic himself, Koestenbaum attends to Sontag’s special ways of writing — her detached tone, her outspokenness, her sharp conclusions — to reflect his education through her. “Susan Sontag, my prose’s prime mover, ate the world,” he begins. And consume, she did. But apparently, so did Koestenbaum. He draws quotes from across her essays and fiction, taking care to comment on the parts that intrigue him, stir him, “entrance” him. His expansive language speaks for itself; my words here cannot do him justice. But I will leave you with one more taste for his zeal: Koestenbaum not only thinks, but moreover dreams, in Sontag.

Sontag was a shameless apologist for aesthetic pleasure. Accordingly, I revere her essays not only for what they say but for how they say it. The essay, in Sontag’s hands, became perilously interesting, governed by caprice masquerading as commentary. Her capriciousness, like foppish fiction-maverick Ronald Firbank’s, turned on the dime of the sentence, that unit of fidelity to the “now,” to contemporaneous duration. Sentence maven, she enmeshes me still: In her prose’s hands I’m a prisoner of desire, yearning for a literary art that knows no distinction between captive and captor. Such art can be sadomasochistic in its charm, its coldness, and its vulnerability.

Reading the Margins: On Illness as Metaphor (Tessa Fontaine, FSG Work in Progress, November 2017)

Sontag has written loads about sickness, in essay collections like Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, and short stories like “The Way We Live Now.” Further, she was herself a frequent patient. Throughout her three bouts of cancer, she maintained an intense will to live; her first diagnosis at age 40 was so dire she found only one doctor with any hope. Because of his radical treatment, live she did. Like Sontag, writer Tessa Fontaine was diagnosed young, at age 21. Though Fontaine did not find Illness as Metaphor until she was in remission, its arguments gave her community in cancer’s aftermath. Sontag elucidates the detriment of using metaphor to discuss disease. Invoking the language of warfare, like “invasive” and “survivor,” is commonplace when discussing cancer. In these images, the body turns against itself, and the patient is both enemy and fighter. The imagery affected Fontaine’s experience — as a cancer patient, she developed a contentious relationship with her body. But she was able, through Sontag’s work, to process those contentions and see how they distort the disease into something that it is not. Fontaine’s copy of the essays, borrowed from the library, had the added charm of marginalia from a previous reader. Fontaine writes, “I felt as if I had joined a tiny collective. None of us knew each other. All of us were uncomfortable with the way we related to illness, and felt alone in our thinking. And yet that’s the lovely part. In the margins, we were not exactly alone.” In destigmatizing illness, Sontag provided necessary relief to people like Fontaine.

When I look back at my journal from when I had cancer, though, it’s clear that what scared me most was the new truth that my body could not be trusted. There had been a foreign invader, living right inside me. My body harbored secret, destructive agents. I was at war with myself—and because every metaphoric victor has its foil in its opposite, there was always the chance that somewhere within me there was the loser. I still have this secret, sneaking belief that deep in the center of most of my organs, there are massive, sticky, boiling lumps of tar. Or polyps filled with poison. Or a little army of diseases wearing armor and brandishing swords, ready to unleash.

If you believe that you are to blame for your illness, even in part, it is harder to survive, Sontag writes.

Sontag’s last few days of life are wonderfully depicted by Katie Roiphe at Lithub.

Susan Sontag Taught Me How to Think (A.O. Scott, The New York Times, October 2019)

If the pieces in this reading list invoke Sontag as a mentor and teacher, this one is the most on theme. Journalist and cultural critic A.O. Scott presents a composition, replete with numbered paragraphs — mirroring, one would be quick to note, Sontag’s own paragraph styling — about his life with Sontag. In only the confines of his mind, that is, as he turned down his one chance to meet her. He was captured at an early age. Her work made him eager for a head full of cultural knowledge like hers. But in this relationship of such character-defining importance, Scott is understandably protective. When narrating her legacy, he offers his frustrations: how she, a woman so adamant that images do not overtake content, has been moved from intellect to image. Scott resists his cravings to right this, deciding instead to paint a more personal version of Sontag. His struggle in deciding what Sontag to write, forthright to the reader, fills the piece with the hauntings of what he decides against. This doubled production, along with his embodied account of her importance, are a cup of tea to warm the heart of any Sontag devotee.

4 It’s hard for me, after so many years, to account for the impact “Against Interpretation” had on me. It was first published in 1966, the year of my birth, which struck me as terribly portentous. It brought news about books I hadn’t — hadn’t yet! — read and movies I hadn’t heard about and challenged pieties I had only begun to comprehend. It breathed the air of the ’60s, a momentous time I had unforgivably missed. But I kept reading “Against Interpretation” — following it with “Styles of Radical Will,” “On Photography” and “Under the Sign of Saturn,” books Sontag would later deprecate as “juvenilia” — for something else. For the style, you could say (she wrote an essay called “On Style”). For the voice, I guess, but that’s a tame, trite word. It was because I craved the drama of her ambivalence, the tenacity of her enthusiasm, the sting of her doubt. I read those books because I needed to be with her. Is it too much to say that I was in love with her? Who was she, anyway?

 

***

 

Brooke is a D.C.-based writer and keeps an arts, culture, and self-reflection blog Sometimes Trove.

 


Want more recommendations? Sign up for our weekly #LongreadsTop5 email, sent to your inbox every Friday.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter