Against Interpretation and Other Essays Analysis

Susan Sontag

Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays is a collection of twenty-seven essays and reviews which Susan Sontag, once the darling of the New York avant garde, originally published between 1962 and 1965 in such journals as Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books, Moviegoer, and Evergreen Review. Although she has written novels and screenplays since, this, her first collection of essays, established her reputation as a spokesperson for what she defined as a new existential sensibility, and it remains her best-known work.

The collection is organized into five sections. The first, which contains only the two well-known essays, “Against Interpretation” and “On Style,” focuses on general aesthetic issues: what constitutes the artwork and what is the proper way to behold it. The second, third, and fourth sections focus, respectively, on books, theater, and film, particularly the writers, dramatists, and filmmakers whom Sontag herself most admires. The final section, which contains another of her most famous essays, “Notes on ‘Camp,”’ deals with more general cultural topics such as psychoanalysis, “happenings,” and what Sontag calls “the new sensibility”—a sensibility which bridges the gap between the two cultures of science and art.

Although the essays were written on many different occasions—sometimes as reviews of books or plays, sometimes as thought pieces on...

(The entire section is 556 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Against Interpretation, and Other Essays is a collection of essays written by Susan Sontag between 1961 and 1965, including book, play, and film reviews, as well as more general discussions of contemporary culture. The book is divided into five sections, roughly categorized according to the type of essay included.

The first section begins with the title essay, first published in 1964, followed by “On Style” (1965), which expands on the points discussed in the first essay. “Against Interpretation” is a general statement of the author’s point of view relating to literary criticism, a point of view which is borne out in the rest of the work. According to Sontag, a work of art should be accepted and enjoyed for what it is (form) rather than what it supposedly means (content). Sontag traces the critical concept of “deeper meaning” back to the ancient Greeks, wherein the form and style of an artistic work is considered merely a vehicle with which to convey its meaning. Thus, critics have found it necessary to “interpret” works, rather than discussing them as they really are.

Part 2 of Against Interpretation, and Other Essays is a series of book reviews, in each case beginning with general statements about the sort of work being reviewed, followed by specific analyses. All the books and authors reviewed are European, and the majority are French. Sontag makes it clear in this section that she is more interested in...

(The entire section is 567 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Susan Sontag is not a “feminist” in the usual sense of the term. Indeed, she has been condemned by members of the feminist movement because she refuses to condemn pornography as “exploitation,” and because she treats sex and love as positive concepts to be considered on a broader scale. On the other hand, Sontag has been a major force in contemporary literary criticism, beginning in a time when such terms as “women’s liberation” were not yet in existence. Her later works are also not feminist, per se, but her male and female characters are considered as equally valuable persons, and the authors she criticizes are taken at face value, regardless of their sex.

When Against Interpretation, and Other Essays was written, literary criticism was still largely a man’s job, and remained so for a long time. In succeeding years, there was much criticism and fiction written from women’s standpoints, but even then, it was usually obvious that a woman was writing the piece in question. Sontag has always been an exception to this rule.

The very fact that this author has been criticized by the feminist movement proves that she has had a major effect upon that movement, and especially upon its literary accomplishments. Sontag was in her early thirties when she wrote these essays and was already rebelling against the mainstream of literary criticism; that rebellion was being taken quite seriously, by both supporters and degraders. The most important impact of the works of Sontag upon feminist literature, and upon contemporary literature in general, has been to call into question all the basic assumptions about the way in which works of art, and society in general, should be regarded.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Bruss, Elizabeth. Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Cain, William E. The Crisis in Criticism: Theory, Literature, and Reform in English Studies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. Offers a discussion of contemporary literary criticism, with particular emphasis on the sorts of objections to criticism that modern critics, including Susan Sontag, have expressed toward the critique of literature.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. Introduction to A Susan Sontag Reader, 1982.

Holbrook, David. “What New Sensibility?” in Cambridge Quarterly. III (1968), pp. 153-163.

Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Leitch, Vincent B. American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties, 1988.

Light, Steve. “The Noise of Decomposition: Response to Susan Sontag,” in Sub-Stance. XXVI (1980), pp. 86-94.

Minogue, Sally, ed. Problems for Feminist Criticism. London: Routledge, 1990. A general discussion of literary criticism in feminist terms, with a historical background included.

Nelson, Cary. “Reading Criticism,” in PMLA. XCI (1976), pp. 801-815.

Nelson, Cary. “Soliciting Self-Knowledge: The Rhetoric of Susan Sontag’s Criticism,” in Critical Inquiry. VI (Summer, 1980), pp. 707-726.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1990.

Sontag, Susan. I, Etcetera. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978. A collection of short stories by Sontag, in a style far from the mainstream of contemporary narrative literature. This book is an exemplary example of the sort of literature that Sontag suggested would be most relevant in her earlier essays.

Sontag, Susan. A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982. A collection of essays, short stories, and excerpts from novels from Sontag’s works between 1963 and 1982, showing a progression of her opinions and literary styles.

Vidal, Gore. “Miss Sontag’s New Novel.” In United States: Essays, 1952-1992. New York: Random House, 1993.

Warhol, Robyn R., and Diane Price Herndl, eds. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991. An anthology of feminist criticism and its general effect upon literary criticism in contemporary American literature.

Webster, Grant. The Republic of Letters: A History of Postwar American Literary Opinion, 1979.