A new biography of Susan Sontag has just hit the shelves. The Wall Street Journal has one of the first MSM reviews on Daniel Schreiber‘s book, translated from the German. Clearly, the writer Micah Mattix didn’t like Sontag, and says Schreiber felt the same:
When it comes to Susan Sontag, there are those who dislike both the woman and the work and those who just dislike the woman. In the preface to his biography of Sontag—the first since the essayist and novelist died in 2004— Daniel Schreiber reluctantly puts himself in the latter group. Writing on Sontag, the German critic tells us, was both wonderful and difficult: “Wonderful because I had the chance to immerse myself in almost everything Sontag had ever written or said. . . . Difficult, also, because Sontag’s character made it impossible for me to adopt the tone of unbridled admiration authors of literary biographies usually adopt.”
Even readers who have never opened the New York Review of Books, where so many of her essays appeared, know the name Susan Sontag. Even those who never puzzled their way through “Notes on Camp,” her provocative 1964 article in Partisan Review that helped define a certain ironic intellectual pose, will recall she was one of America’s most celebrated public intellectuals. Sontag was famous for writings on film, photography and philosophy, as well as for the striking photographs of her that appeared in publications like Vogue and Mademoiselle, which once led Mary Ellmann to call her the “Chanel of the arts.” Mr. Schreiber’s book, translated from the German by David Dollenmayer, presents an opportunity to ask what it adds up to—aside from a sort of intellectual glamour. And, not least, how did Susan Sontag become “Susan Sontag”?
Apparently, Schreiber points out the inconsistencies in Sontag’s descriptions of herself. “She claimed, for example, that she had no idea where her family was from, even though she knew her grandparents had emigrated from Lodz. She would later claim that she was born in Poland herself. Mr. Schreiber is also rightly skeptical of Sontag’s claims about her own youthful brilliance. Her idealization of her childhood, Mr. Schreiber writes, would ‘serve above all to promote the aura of genius in which Sontag consciously wrapped herself later in life.’” Well, of course. Is there anyone who doubted that her accounts of reading Immanuel Kant shortly out of the womb were anything but hyperbolic? Read the WSJ review here.
Flavorwire has a lengthy excerpt from the book, describing how she became “Susan Sontag.” Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt, to remind you that even this famous writer had hard times, a lot of them, in fact:
“After The Benefactor was published, the contradiction between Sontag’s academic career and her literary ambitions became more acute. The fact that she had not completed her dissertation, instead becoming more and more involved with the literary world, led to difficulties with Columbia University. Roger Straus, who had recommended his author for fellowships from the Rockefeller and Merrill foundations, discreetly but urgently told his friend Harry Ford at the latter foundation, ‘As you may know, she is a member of the Philosophy faculty at Columbia, where her writing efforts have been greeted most unphilosophically by her senior colleagues. As a result of this stupid attitude, she is now in financial need.’
“Sontag’s academic mentor and promoter Jacob Taubes was at this time negotiating his return to Germany to take up a post at the Free University in Berlin, so she could expect no more support from him. Her job would be at risk once he was gone. Finally, however, her publisher’s efforts on her behalf bore fruit. On the basis of her literary and critical publications, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded her a post as writer in residence at Rutgers University during the academic year 1964–1965, and for 1965, she also received a fellowship from the Merrill Foundation. These awards put her in a position to leave her unloved instructorship in Columbia’s Department of Philosophy.
“Sontag’s friend Annette Michelson seemed very surprised by this turn of events. The art historian was pursuing an academic career in film studies, at the time still a completely obscure discipline, and could not understand why Sontag would so cavalierly abandon her university career in favor of a highly insecure existence as a freelance writer, apparently without a backward glance. But Sontag’s departure from academia was not quite as straightforward as that. Three years later, she still regretted not having finished her dissertation and even planned to complete it after all—probably on recent French philosophy—and earn her PhD from Harvard. But she never carried out this plan. The numerous teaching positions, honorary doctorates, and professorships that were later offered to her she mostly also turned down, often with the flippant justification that she had too much respect for a real PhD to accept an honorary one. Although she kept abreast of scholarly publications in the areas of literature, film studies, and cultural history, her essayistic approach remained basically antiacademic. She repeatedly stressed that the life of a writer and that of an academic were mutually exclusive. She had, after all, seen “academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” It is not difficult to discern behind this remark a pose of wounded vanity. Herself one of the best authors of her generation, Sontag’s failure in academia was due not only to her wish for an antiacademic life but also to the fact that she was a woman in the still strongly patriarchal world of the universities.
“At the end of the spring semester in 1964, Sontag left her teaching position at Columbia and began life as a freelance author and essayist. After early difficulties earning enough to get by, she increasingly was able to support herself with her writing.
“In the few published journal entries from that year, Sontag’s personal problems sometimes shade into self-loathing. With great clarity she mounts attacks against herself, criticizing her tendency “to censor [sic] others for my own vices, to make my friendships into love affairs, to ask that love include (and exclude) all.” What fell victim to her new notoriety was her literary output. After finishing The Benefactor in 1962, Sontag wrote essays almost exclusively. A second novel she had already begun proved too short of breath and appeared as a short story titled ‘The Dummy’ in the September 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.Otherwise, journalism and essays predominated until the fall of 1965, and for good reasons. For one thing, the intense life Sontag led in New York was expensive and her essays, reviews, and articles paid much more than novels or short stories. The Atlantic Monthly, for example, paid $500 for a 3,000–3,500 word article, as much as FSG paid her for the completed manuscript of her entire novel. For another thing, her extraordinary articles appeared to gain her more—and more immediate—recognition from colleagues and friends than her fiction.
“Yet as her journal shows, writing at this time became a real challenge and even a torture for Sontag. ‘A freshly typed manuscript, the moment it’s completed, begins to stink. It’s a dead body—it must be buried—embalmed, in print,” she said. By her own admission, she needed to build up pressure to write. Her work got done in intense bursts: “I write when I have to because the pressure builds up and I feel enough confidence that something has matured in my head and I can write it down.’”