Susan Sontag

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Discussion Topics

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How is the idea of “camp” related to Susan Sontag’s belief that style in art is what is most important?

In what sense was Sontag “against interpretation.” To what kind of interpretation was she opposed?

What happens when illness is made into a metaphor? Why is it dangerous to use a word such as cancer as a metaphor rather than as just the description of a disease?

What ideas in The Volcano Lover correspond to the ideas Sontag wrote about in her essays?

What is Sontag saying about America in her novel In America? What does it mean to be an American and to live in the United States?

Other Literary Forms

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Susan Sontag published a number of novels, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), The Volcano Lover (1992), In America (2000), and several collections of essays, including Against Interpretation (1966), Styles of Radical Will (1969), On Photography (1977), Illness as Metaphor (1978), Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989). She published a play, Alice in Bed (1993), and the screenplays Duet for Cannibals (1969) and Brother Carl (1972).


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Susan Sontag was the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Book Critics Circle Award for Illness as Metaphor. In 1990, she received a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, and in 1993 Harvard University awarded her an honorary degree.

Other literary forms

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Although two of her novels achieved popular and critical success, Susan Sontag was best known as an essayist who took on controversial topics such as art, war, disease, and politics. She first made her reputation as a cultural commentator with Against Interpretation, and Other Essays (1966), a study of avant-garde art, including drama, film, literature, and other cultural events. She expanded her range of subject matter in Styles of Radical Will (1969), which included not only influential essays on science fiction and pornography but also a travel journal of her trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Her reputation as an essayist reached its apogee in her widely debated book On Photography (1977), which evoked simultaneously her fascination with photographs and her distrust of them as purveyors of knowledge about the human condition. Sontag later revised some of her views on photography in the well-received Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). She also authored a highly praised collection of experimental short fiction, I, Etcetera (1978). Her long short story “The Way We Live Now,” published originally in The New Yorker in 1986 and then in 1991 published on its own in a special edition featuring hand-colored engravings by Howard Hodgkin, has come to be considered one of the classic accounts of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic. Her one play, Alice in Bed (pb. 1993), devoted to the life of Alice James, the sister of novelist Henry James and psychologist William James, is representative of Sontag’s increasing interest in feminist issues in the latter part of her career.


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Although Susan Sontag’s early novels received some praise for their daring experimental narratives, many critics considered them derivative of the French New Novel as developed by Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet. Sontag herself discounted her early long fiction, although it has remained in print and continues to elicit critical commentary.

What might be called Sontag’s second career as a novelist began with the best-selling The Volcano Lover , an account of the Admiral Nelson-Emma Hamilton romance set against the revolution in Naples and the avid aesthetic sensibility of Emma’s husband, Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador. That Sontag should have turned to the historical novel astounded but also delighted reviewers, many of whom praised her ability to fuse her intellectual and artistic...

(This entire section contains 285 words.)

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interests with a love story. Sontag’s achievement, however, is probably best honored for the distinctive narrative voice she crafted—one that reflected her own sensibility even as it plumbed the lives of historical figures. Also noteworthy is Sontag’s use of first-person narratives at the end of her novel in order to give voice to some of the female victims of the eighteenth century revolution.

Sontag’s fourth novel, In America, won the National Book Award for fiction. While certain critics deemed this work inferior to The Volcano Lover, Sontag’s impressive grasp of nineteenth century American history and her development of her main character (modeled on a Polish actress who immigrated to America) won her many new readers. The novel also reflects Sontag’s continuing experiments with narrative voice—in this case she introduced the novel with an autobiographical prologue, calling attention to the highly personal nature of her story and the way the novelist identifies with her characters.


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Bruss, Elizabeth W. Beautiful Theories: The Spectacle of Discourse in Contemporary Criticism. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982. A thorough exploration of Sontag’s essays and screenplays, with discussions of her theory of literature that contribute greatly to an understanding of the aims of her short fiction.

Kennedy, Liam. Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995. A detailed study of Sontag’s career. Kennedy is especially insightful about the intellectual influences on Sontag’s writing. His book includes discussions of individual stories.

Poague, Leland, ed. Conversations with Susan Sontag. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. An indispensable guide to Sontag’s writing. Not only do her interviews contain many illuminating remarks about her short fiction, but also Poague’s introduction and chronology provide the best introduction to Sontag’s work as a whole.

Rollyson, Carl, and Lisa O. Paddock. Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. The first, and unauthorized biography of the American leftist intellectual essayist, fiction writer, and political activist Sontag, a book which diminishes rather than enlarges its subject.

Sayres, Sohnya. Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist. New York: Routledge, 1990. Sayres’s introduction and biographical chapter provide significant insight into the background of Sontag’s short fiction. Sayres also discusses individual stories, but her jargon will prove difficult to the beginning student of Sontag’s work.

Vidal, Gore. United States Essays 1952-1992. New York: Random House, 1993. Contains essays on the French New Novel and on Sontag’s second novel, Death Kit. Although Vidal does not discuss Sontag’s short fiction, his lucid explanation of the New Novel and of Sontag’s theory of fiction provide an excellent framework for studying the stories in I, Etcetera.


Critical Essays