Susan Sontag 1933–
American essayist, critic, novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, and film director.
Sontag is among the most influential contemporary American critics. Her numerous essays concentrate on utilizing a new sensibility in evaluating a work of art. Early in her career, Sontag proposed an end to standard methods of critical analysis that rely on content and various levels of meaning. She asserted that the function of criticism is to show "how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means." Sontag is credited with making the works of such writers as Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin more accessible to American audiences, and she has also earned the reputation among critics as an advocate of popular culture.
Sontag established her precepts for evaluating art in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966). In the title essay she contends that critical interpretation "depletes and impoverishes" creative works, arguing that art should be received with the senses—evoking pleasure and excitement—and not the intellect. Included in this volume is the famous essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" in which Sontag defends "camp" as a legitimate art form that is "serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious." She also proposed that style is the essence of "camp," asserting that "there exists a good taste of bad taste." Although most critics dubbed her the "Queen of Camp," some acknowledge the essay's importance in introducing avant-garde works into the cultural mainstream. "Trip to Hanoi" (1968) is a journalistic essay that recounts Sontag's visit to North Vietnam. Several critics commended her for not resorting to political rhetoric. Sontag instead concentrates on the personal growth and enlightenment realized through her interaction with the North Vietnamese. Styles of Radical Will (1969) contains the essays "The Pornographic Imagination," in which Sontag argues that pornography is a valid literary genre, and "The Aesthetics of Silence," an analysis of the intentionally noncommunicative qualities in works by John Cage, Samuel Beckett, and others. Also included are several pieces on the cinema.
Illness As Metaphor (1978), written after Sontag's own fight with cancer, discusses the ways in which society conceptualizes illness. She draws a parallel between the nineteenth-century tendency to equate tuberculosis with romanticism and the twentieth-century perception of cancer as an isolating, passionless disease. In both cases she contends that such attitudes have hindered scientific research into the causes of the two diseases. Illness As Metaphor is regarded as an attempt to remove these obstacles and advance the research and cure of cancer. The essays in Under the Sign of Saturn (1981) focus on European art and philosophy. Critics generally agree that the essays on German filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg are the best in this volume.
While Sontag is best known as a critic, she has published two novels, The Benefactor (1963) and Death Kit (1967), and a collection of short stories, I, etcetera (1978). She has also directed and written the screenplays for the films Duet for Can-nibals (1968), Brother Carl (1972), and Promised Lands (1974), a documentary on the Yom Kippur War of 1973. These works have not received the same serious recognition as Sontag's expository writings, yet the experimental nature of her fiction follows Sontag's conception of art as an immediate and sensuous experience. A Susan Sontag Reader (1982) is a selection of previously published works, including excerpts from the two novels.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 10, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2.)