Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

Sontag is a writer of amazing range, writing on subjects from photography to politics to the mythology of illness. Though her first novel The Benefactor appeared in 1963, her role as an intellectual has always overshadowed her career as a fiction writer.

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In the 1960s Sontag published two maverick works of art criticism, Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. These works, as well as her 1977 On Photography, made her one of the most recognizable and controversial intellectuals in American public life.

As she was finishing On Photography Sontag was struck with near-fatal cancer, an experience that inspired her to write Illness as Metaphor, which examines the cultural symbolism surrounding cancer. This book won her a new audience and more critical esteem.

Began as a three-page epilogue to Illness as Metaphor, AIDS and Its Metaphors, became the subject of her next book. Having lost a very close friend to the disease, Sontag applied the critical approach of the earlier book to the AIDS epidemic. Published in the midst of both hysteria and activism regarding AIDS, AIDS and Its Metaphors,was received with mixed reactions.

Sontag's interest in the AIDS epidemic also inspired one of her most successful works of fiction. ‘‘The Way We Live Now’’ first appeared in the New Yorker in 1986. The following year editor Ann Beattie selected it as the lead story in The Best American Short Stories of 1987, a popular series featuring fiction from the best literary and general readership magazines. At the decade's end, the story was also included in The Best American Short Stories of the Eighties.

In 1991 Noonday Press issued the story as an expensive and beautifully produced thirty-page paperback, with the addition of abstract etchings by British artist Howard Hodgkin. Sontag and Hodgkin donated the proceeds from the book to AIDS charities. Though these four publishing venues are all highly prestigious, the story was reviewed infrequently, mostly because Sontag never published it as part of a collection.

The few reviews of the story were uniformly positive. The New York Times Book Review's Gardner McFall compares the story to Trollope and Camus, adding that"its haunting effect belongs entirely to Ms. Sontag.’’

In this and several other short reviews, critics quote or paraphrase Sontag extensively in order to catch the flavor of her unusual narrative style, which they agree is uniquely suited to her subject matter. Barbara A. MacAdam of ARTnews praises Sontag's ‘‘fluid, stream-of-consciousness style, describing the way we come gradually to acknowledge AIDS and accommodate it in our own style of living, loving, joking, and just plain coping.’’

Rosemary Dinnage of the Times Literary Supplement characterizes the story as "a brilliant and chilling account of AIDS’’ and ‘‘a complete, minutely scaled dissection of attitudes toward death at its starkest.'' Both Dinnage and Leon S. Roudiez of World Literature Today point out connections between the story and Sontag's essay on the cultural myths surrounding AIDS, AIDS and Its Metaphors. Roudiez describes the story as ‘‘a remarkable, moving book'' that also has a "eerie uncertainty... that draws one toward death while also refusing to accept the inescapable outcome.’’

In Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion, Liam Kennedy compares "The Way We Live Now'' to AIDS and Its Metaphors, deeming the former ‘‘more successful in giving powerful and poignant expression to the 'universe of fear in which everyone now lives.'’’ He goes on to describe the story as a "daring application of the aesthetic of silence which renders the reality of AIDS more immediately personal than AIDS and Its Metaphors.’’

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