Susan Sontag 1933–
American essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, dramatist, and film director.
The following entry presents an overview of Sontag's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 10, 13, and 31.
Sontag is one of the most influential contemporary American critics. Considered a popular icon for her role in the development of modern culture and intellectual thought, Sontag addresses issues of interpretation and has exposed Americans to the works of modern European intellectuals.
Sontag was born January 16, 1933, in New York City, but spent her youth in Tucson and Los Angeles. She graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and entered the University of California, Berkeley, transferring after one year to the University of Chicago, from which she received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951. While at the University of Chicago, Sontag met Philip Rieff, a social psychologist; the couple married in 1950 and had a son, David, two years later, but divorced in 1959. Sontag pursued graduate studies at Harvard from 1951 to 1957, earning master's degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955). She continued her graduate studies at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and the University of Paris. After several years of teaching at various universities, Sontag began writing full-time; her first collection of critical essays was published in 1966. In the early 1970s Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer, which contributed to her writing of Illness as Metaphor (1978.)
In her first collection of critical essays, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), Sontag eschewed standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning, asserting instead that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than show what it means." Included in this collection is the famous essay "Notes on Camp" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a serious art form. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essay "The Pornographic Imagination" in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre. Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) both deal with the way in which western society interprets and creates cultural myths about disease. Sontag has also written several works of fiction, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories entitled I, etcetera (1978). Most noted among her fiction is The Volcano Lover (1992), an unusual account of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson told from the point of view of Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This novel provides a sweeping look at society and culture in Naples from 1764 to 1780, with which the author contrasts contemporary culture. Sontag has also written a play, Alice in Bed (1993), about the life of Alice James, the sister of Henry and William James.
Sontag's work has generated much criticism. While some reviewers have praised her for providing a new interpretation of modern culture and for exposing Americans to modern European writers and intellectuals, others contend that Sontag's arguments are not supported adequately and that she diverges too much from her central themes. Bruce Bower writes, "It sometimes seems as if Sontag's chief priority as an essayist is not to clarify, persuade, or illuminate, but to demonstrate to the world that she is the highest of the highbrows, an intellectual, a breed apart from the lesser scribblers." Some critics have made similar assessments of her fiction. Richard Jenkyns states that Sontag has put too much of her own voice in The Volcano Lover: "Her characters are squeezed out to make room for her own insistent voice." Most critics, however, are united in their praise of Sontag's descriptive narrative and her depiction of historical trends and settings.