Susan Sontag 1933 -
American essayist, novelist, short-story writer, critic, playwright, screenplay writer, and film director.
The following entry provides an overview of Sontag's career through 2004. See also Susan Sontag Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 10, 31, 105.
Sontag is widely noted as one of the most influential and controversial contemporary American essayists and social commentators. 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. Through her essays on illness, she has discredited many of the misinformed opinions and negative associations attached to such diseases as cancer and AIDS, and she has argued for a new understanding of disease based on clinical evidence and free from social stigma. In her fiction Sontag frequently experiments with form and style and uses narrative to underscore the universality of human emotion and actions, to illustrate the fine line between reality and fiction, and to ponder the bounds of free will.
Sontag was born on January 16, 1933, in New York City, but spent her youth in Tucson and Los Angeles. She was a gifted student and skipped several years in school, graduating from high school at age fifteen. She then entered the University of California, Berkeley, and transferred after one year to the University of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1951. While attending the University of Chicago, Sontag met Philip Rieff, a social psychologist. The couple married in 1950 and had a son, David, but divorced nine years later. Sontag pursued graduate studies at Harvard from 1951 to 1957, earning master's degrees in English (1954) and philosophy (1955). She later continued her graduate studies at St. Anne's College, Oxford, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Sontag was a regular contributor to the Partisan Review, Harper's Weekly, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books while holding teaching positions at institutions including the University of Connecticut, City College of the City University of New York, Sarah Lawrence College, and Rutgers University. Sontag soon retired from her academic career and began writing full-time; her first novel, The Benefactor, was published in 1963 and her first collection of essays, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, appeared in 1966. In the early 1970s Sontag was diagnosed with breast cancer and her experiences with disease as well as others' reaction to it served as the basis for her Illness as a Metaphor (1978), which in turn led to the writing of AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). In the early 1990s, Sontag made numerous trips to war-torn Yugoslavia for humanitarian purposes. While there, she also directed a production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Sontag has received numerous fellowships and awards, including a National Book Award nomination in 1966 for Against Interpretation and Other Essays, a National Book Critics Circle prize in 1978 for On Photography (1977), and the National Book Award in 2000 for the novel In America (2000).
Sontag addresses social, artistic, and political issues, as well as contemporary complacency in her essays. In her first collection, Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Sontag eschewed standard critical methods that rely on analysis of 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 and AIDS and Its Metaphors both deal with the way in which western society interprets and creates cultural myths about diseases. In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag examines the stigma associated with cancer and cancer patients and attempts to defuse the negative power that words have in dealing with such an illness. She takes this approach one step further in AIDS and Its Metaphors exposing misconceptions and confusion about AIDS and AIDS patients. Under the Sign of Saturn (1980) is a volume of essays that explore theories in literary criticism. Sontag further delves into the arts and the artist in Where the Stress Falls (2001); this volume also includes the essay titled “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo,” which focuses on her time in Sarajevo during the war in Yugoslavia. Sontag studies photographs and images and their effects on viewers in On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) and comments on humanity's reaction to and morbid fascination with photos and images of the pain of others. Sontag emphasizes the dangerous desensitizing of Westerners who are bombarded by such images on television, in magazines, and films. Sontag has also written several works of fiction, including a play, Alice in Bed (1993), about Alice James, sister to Henry and William James; the novels The Benefactor and Death Kit (1967); and a collection of short stories titled I, etcetera (1978). Most notable among her fiction are The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). The Volcano Lover is an unusual account of Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson's love affair as told from the point of view of Hamilton's husband, Sir William Hamilton. This novel provides a sweeping look at Italian society between 1764 and 1780, with which the author contrasts contemporary culture and highlights the timeless repetition of human folly and foibles. In America is also a historical novel, and concerns a Polish actress and immigrant and her quest for fame, fortune, and the American dream.
Sontag's work has generated much reaction from reviewers and ordinary readers alike. Many of her views have run contrary to majority political and intellectual thought and Sontag has actually reversed some of her earlier opinions. Her studies of American culture have earned her both favorable and negative criticism, as well as observations that her own work proves her points in ironic, presumably unintentional ways. For example, some commentators have asserted that her essays censuring American culture of the 1960s and early 1970s are actually themselves a product of the era's discourse. While some reviewers have praised her novel interpretation of modern culture and her championing of contemporary European writers and intellectuals, others contend that Sontag's arguments are not supported adequately and that she often diverges from her central themes. Sontag's groundbreaking works on the power of words to create associations for certain physical ailments are universally well received. Although some note that Sontag's use of epigrams and clichés is at times tedious, most critics approve of her descriptive narrative style and her depiction of historical trends and settings, praising her experiments with language and literary form.