The publication of A Susan Sontag Reader affords an opportunity, indeed invites one, to take stock of the career of this formidably talented woman of letters. Much respected within the restricted circle of the Manhattan literary scene, she has not been treated very generously by American culture at large. Americans do not quite know what to do with “men of letters,” though Edmund Wilson found his place in that respect. It is even more difficult for American society to accept a “woman of letters,” particularly one, like Sontag, whose erudition and interests include literature, film, philosophy, and politics. When Americans accord a woman the title of “writer,” they expect her to be identifiable as a novelist or poet or biographer, but Sontag transcends conventional categories, thereby causing eyebrows to be raised. During her career as a writer, she has somehow come to be regarded more as an “event,” or as someone about whom one must form an opinion in quite a different way from the value placed upon the work of, for example, a Eudora Welty or a Joyce Carol Oates.
Even given the deeply ingrained anti-intellectualism of Americans, it is surprising to note the degree to which Sontag is scornfully stigmatized as an “egghead.” This scorn comes her way from both ends of the political spectrum—both from those on the Right who use her learning as further evidence of the irrelevance of her concerns and tastes for “real Americans,” and from those on the Left who see her intellectualizing as an obstacle to the adoption of more strident political positions. Adrienne Rich is an example of the latter case, in her criticism of Sontag on feminist grounds. Rich’s attack, which produced a memorable debate that unfolded in the pages of The New York Review of Books (“Feminism and Fascism: An Exchange,” March 20, 1975), prompted the essay “Fascinating Fascism,” which the present volume contains. Rich seems to have resented the intellectual detachment with which Sontag, in her essay, could regard the cinematic oeuvre of the Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and she condemned Sontag’s essay for its lack of assertion of feminist values. It is a tribute to Sontag’s elusiveness that others are struck by what they regard as an excessively feminist bias in her writing. Whatever the politics, all of her critics seem united in expressing exasperation about the cerebral aspect of her work.
Sontag is a belletrist, an author, by and large, of occasional pieces. From its origins in the calm, meditative pieces of Michel de Montaigne, the essay is perhaps the literary genre that lends itself best to the process of self-discovery. It need not be for anyone else. Rather, the ostensible subject focused upon in the essay provides an occasion for reflection on the author’s response to it. Writing of this type does not necessarily assert its relevance to the reader’s life. When it strikes a responsive chord in the reader, this is largely a matter of taste or of an affinity of sensibilities. France, Montaigne’s country, is the country in which this type of writing has flourished, and, while Sontag’s essays have been published variously in Partisan Review, Evergreen Review, The Nation, and (especially in recent years) The New York Review of Books, they might find a home in a French journal such as the Nouvelle Revue Française. America, home of the blockbuster novel and the definitive biography, does not quite know what to do about writers who work largely in miniature, as Sontag has.
Sontag has also played the role, like Madame de Staël in the Napoleonic era, of introducing her compatriots to “foreign” influences, for which she has been accused of mere “trendiness.” Just as her style is Continental, her tastes and interests have often extended to authors or filmmakers whose work has been, at least at the time of...
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