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Susan Sontag

Susan Sontag

Among the literary stars of the radical 1960s, Susan Sontag (born 1933) produced numerous works evaluating and commenting on contemporary life and literature. Her essays appeared in nearly every major publication beginning in 1962, and her assessment of topics such as "camp," pornography, and the Vietnam war earned her a wide readership, well into the 1990s.

Susan Sontag was born on January 28, 1933, in New York City, the daughter of a travelling salesman and a teacher. She recalled that as a child her ambition was to be a chemist, although she had always spent a great deal of time writing. When the family moved to California, she entered North Hollywood High School, graduating at 15. She then entered the University of California at Berkeley, but soon transferred to the University of Chicago. She received a B.A. in philosophy in 1951, a year after her marriage to Philip Rieff, a sociologist. Their son, David, was born in 1952.

Sontag studied at Harvard, receiving her M.A. from the graduate school there and completing all but her dissertation for a Ph.D. She taught at various schools, including Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Harvard. In 1957 she was awarded a grant from the American Association of University Women which allowed her to study at the Sorbonne, in Paris. The following year she and Rieff divorced, although they collaborated on Freud: The Mind of the Moralist, published in 1959.

Sontag worked as editor of Commentary and settled in New York City with her son. In 1961 she wrote The Benefactor, a novel in the style of the French récit (a type of narrative). She also began contributing regularly to such publications as the Partisan Review, the Nation, and the New York Review of Books. Observers soon hailed Sontag as a leading voice in contemporary criticism, and in 1964 she won Mademoiselle magazine's merit award.

Her statements on "camp" in the fall 1964 issue of Partisan Review were received with delight as she exploded then-current myths concerning the meaning and content of art. In a collection of essays published in 1966 (Against Interpretation) Sontag said, "The function of criticism should be to show how the work of art is what it is … rather than to show what it means."

Although sometimes accused of "intellectual snobbery," she was generally accepted as the enfant terrible on the New York intellectual scene in the 1960s. She received the George Polk Memorial Award in 1966, along with a Guggenheim fellowship. That same year she was also nominated for a National Book Award for Arts and Letters. In 1967 Sontag was a juror at the Venice Film Festival, and she selected movies for the New York Film Festival. Her own film-making efforts led to Duet for Cannibals (1969); Brother Carl (1971); Promised Lands (1974); and Unguided Tour (1983). In 1976 Sontag received further awards, including the Arts and Letters Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She was a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1990-1995.

Sontag wrote Trip to Hanoi in 1968 in which she explored her reactions to a two-week trip to North Vietnam, and in 1969 she published Styles of Radical Will. The latter discussed, among other things, the value of pornography as a distinct literary form. Another of her fiction works, Death Kit (1967), permitted Sontag to contrast her views on reality and dream, but the book was reviewed in the New York Times as one that "skips, shuffles, and snoozes."

Making her home in New York City, in an apartment that overlooked the Hudson River, Sontag travelled extensively. She spent a number of months each year in Europe, and although she was a sought-after lecturer, she appeared only rarely. Sontag limited her speaking engagements since they were, in her word, often "exploitative."

Sontag published On Photography in 1977 and I, etcetera, a collection of short stories, in 1978. Also in 1978 she brought out Illness as Metaphor, which was prompted in part by her own battles with cancer.

In 1992, Sontag published her first novel in 25 years, The Volcano Lover. During the 1990s, she also published a collection of stories, The Way We Live Now (1991); some essays, Paintings (1995); and a play, Alice in Bed (1993). In 1996, she edited, Homo Poeticus by Danilo Kis, a compilation of essays on social conditions and trends. Also in 1996, Sontag wrote a long commentary for the New York Times Magazine, entitled The Decay of Cinema, which discusses the death of cinephilia—the love of movies as an art form.

Further Reading

For a biography of Susan Sontag, see Liam Kennedy's Premature Postmodern—Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (Manchester, 1995). Sontag's own earlier works were perhaps the best insight into her character. They included: The Benefactor (1963); Death Kit (1967); Against Interpretation (1966); Trip to Hanoi (1968); Styles of Radical Will (1969); and Illness as Metaphor (1978). □

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Sontag, Susan

Susan Sontag (sŏn´täg), 1933–2004, American writer and critic, b. New York City. She grew up in Arizona and California, studied philosophy at the Univ. of Chicago, Harvard, and Oxford, absorbed Gallic culture in Paris, and settled (1959) in New York City. Regarded as a brilliant and original thinker and highly visible as one of the most prominent public intellectuals of the second half of the 20th cent., Sontag became known for her vividly written critical essays on avant-garde culture in the 1960s. Most of these were collected in Against Interpretation (1966), in which she popularized the word camp, referring to exaggerated reproductions of the style and emotions of pop culture.

Sontag's essays on radical politics are collected in Styles of Radical Will (1969). She meditated on the nature of photography in On Photography (1977), explored the ways in which disease is demonized in Illness as Metaphor (1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989), analyzed various modernist writers and filmmakers in Under the Sign of Saturn (1980), and reassessed her ideas on photography's relationship to human suffering in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003). Many of her short nonfiction pieces from the 1980s and 90s were collected in Where the Stress Falls (2001). The late essays and speeches in the posthumous collection At the Same Time (2007) reflect her often less than sanguine views of post-9/11 political life and culture.

Her other works include short stories and such novels as The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and the best-selling historical fictions The Volcano Lover (1992) and In America (2000). Sontag also wrote and directed four motion pictures, including the chamber drama Duet for Cannibals (1969) and the documentary Promised Lands (1974), directed theatrical productions, and was the author of a play, Alice in Bed (1992).

See journals and notebooks ed. by D. Rieff, her son (2 vol., 2008–); L. Poague, ed., Conversations with Susan Sontag (1995) and J. Cott, Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (2013) by J. Cott; memoirs by D. Rieff (2008) and S. Nunez (2011); biography by C. E. Rollyson and L. Paddock (2000); studies by S. Sayres (1990), L. Kennedy (1995), C. E. Rollyson (2001), C. Seligman (2004), and B. Ching and J. A. Wagner-Lawlor, ed. (2009).

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"Sontag, Susan." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 11 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Sontag, Susan


Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 16 January 1933. Education: The University of California, Berkeley, 1948-49; University of Chicago, 1949-51, B.A. 1951; Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1954-57, M.A. 1955; St. Anne's College, Oxford, 1957. Family: Has one son. Career: Instructor in English, University of Connecticut, Storrs, 1953-54; Teaching Fellow in Philosophy, Harvard University, 1955-57; editor, Commentary, New York, 1959; Lecturer in Philosophy, City College of New York, and Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York, 1959-60; Instructor in Religion, Columbia University, New York, 1960-64; writer-in-residence, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1964-65. President, PEN American Center, 1987-89. Lives in New York City. Awards: American Association of University Women fellowship, 1957; Rockefeller fellowship, 1965, 1974; Guggenheim fellowship, 1966, 1975; American Academy award, 1976; Brandeis University Creative Arts award, 1976; Ingram Merrill Foundation award, 1976; National Book Critics Circle award, 1977; Academy of Sciences and Literature award (Mainz, Germany), 1979; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1990-95; Premio Malaparte award (Italy), 1992. Member: American Academy, 1979; Officer, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1984. Address: c/o Wylie, Aitken & Stone, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107, U.S.A.



The Benefactor. New York, Farrar Straus, 1963; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1964.

Death Kit. New York, Farrar Straus, 1967; London, Secker and Warburg, 1968.

The Volcano Lover. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1992.

In America. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Short Stories

I, etcetera. New York, Farrar Straus, 1978; London, Gollancz, 1979.

The Way We Live Now, illustrated by Howard Hodgkin. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1991.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Man with a Pain," in Harper's (New York), April 1964.

"Description (of a Description)," in Antaeus (New York), Autumn 1984.

"The Letter Scene," in The New Yorker, 18 August 1986.

"Pilgrimage," in The New Yorker, 21 December 1987.


Duet for Cannibals (screenplay). New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; London, Allen Lane, 1974.

Brother Carl (screenplay). New York, Farrar Straus, 1974.

Alice in Bed. New York, Farrar Straus, 1993.


Duet for Cannibals, 1969; Brother Carl, 1971.


Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York, Farrar Straus, 1966; London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967.

Trip to Hanoi. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Panther, 1969.

Styles of Radical Will (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1969.

On Photography. New York, Farrar Straus, 1977; London, Allen Lane, 1978.

Illness as Metaphor. New York, Farrar Straus, 1978; London, Allen Lane, 1979.

Under the Sign of Saturn (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1980; London, Writers and Readers, 1983.

A Susan Sontag Reader. New York, Farrar Straus, 1982; London, Penguin, 1983.

Aids and Its Metaphors. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Allen Lane, 1989.

Conversations with Susan Sontag, edited by Leland Poague. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Women (text), photographs by Annie Leibovitz. New York, Random House, 1999.

Editor, Selected Writings of Artaud, translated by Helen Weaver. New York, Farrar Straus, 1976.

Editor, A Barthes Reader. New York, Hill and Wang, and London, Cape, 1982; as Barthes: Selected Writings, London, Fontana, 1983.

Editor, Best American Essays: 1992. New York, Ticknor and Fields, 1992.

Editor, with Danilo Kis, Homo Poeticus. New York, Farrar Straus, 1995.



Susan Sontag: An Annotated Bibliography, 1948-1992 by Leland Poague and Kathy Parsons, New York, Garland, 2000.

Critical Studies:

Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist by Sohnya Sayres, New York, Routledge Chapman and Hall, 1989; Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion by Liam Kennedy, Manchester, England, Manchester University Press, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1995; Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, New York, Norton, 2000.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Plays As You Desire Me by Pirandello, Turin and Italian tour, 1979-80; Jacques and His Master by Milan Kundera, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1985; Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Sarajevo, 1993-94. Films Duet for Cannibals, 1969; Brother Carl, 1971; Promised Lands (documentary), 1974; Unguided Tour, 1983.

* * *

Traditionally readers have approached works of fiction as verbal structures which reveal and generally make statements about a preexisting "real" subject. The writer may represent his subject directly, "imitating" in accordance with conventional understandings about the probable behavior of the human and the natural order; or he may render his subject indirectly by presenting a metaphor which stands for and usually implies a generalization about the same reality. Thus traditional criticism was designed to judge the verisimilitude of fiction and to provide a way of understanding metaphor, allegory, and parable as symbolic statements. It is impossible, however, to discuss the fiction of Susan Sontag in critical terms derived from this essentially naturalistic tradition, just as Sontag herself has attempted to construct a new critical approach to do justice to those works of avant-garde artists whose rendering of the modern world she finds significant.

The tough, polemical essays collected in Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will are more impressive than Sontag's fiction thus far, which too often seems contrived to illustrate a doctrine. For Sontag, the final "most liberating value of art" is "transparency," which means experiencing "the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are." Interpretation, which seeks to replace the work with something elseusually historical, ethical or psychological paraphraseis essentially "revenge which the intellect takes upon art." To interpret is "to impoverish, to deplete." Sontag's chief interest as a critic is the work of artists (especially film makers) whose work is misunderstood because it resists "being reduced to a story." Thus Sontag observes that in his film Persona Bergman presents not a story, but "something that is, in one sense, cruder, and, in another, more abstract: a body of material, a subject. The function of the subject or material may be as much its opacity, its multiplicity, as the ease with which it yields itself to being incarnated by a determinate plot or action." Deliberately frustrating any conventional attempt to determine "what happens," the new novels and films are able, she maintains, to involve the audience "more directly in other matters, for instance in the very processes of seeing and knowing. The material presented can then be treated as a thematic resource, from which different (and perhaps concurrent) narrative structures can be derived as variations." The artist intends his work to remain "partly encoded": the truly modern consciousness challenges the supremacy of naturalism and univocal symbolism.

While vestiges of naturalistic situations remain in Sontag's fiction (her story "The Will and the Way," for example, seems to be an allegory concerning the image of women in modern life), "interpretation" is by definition more or less irrelevant. The Benefactor is in its general outline a dream novel; its "thematic resource" is the problem of attaining selfhood and genuine freedom. Just as Sontag sees Montaigne's essays as "dispassionate, varied explorations of the innumerable ways of being a self," the hero of The Benefactor uses his dreams as a means of achieving freedom. "It seemed to me," Hippolyte concludes, "all my life had been converging on the state of mind in which I would finally be reconciled to myselfmyself as I really am, the self of my dreams. That reconciliation is what I take to be freedom." The device which keeps the reader from treating the novel as paraphrasable allegory is the deliberate ambiguity of the narrative frame: we are left to decide whether the narrative is an account of what happened or an account which is at least in part the construction of a mad Hippolyte whose dreams are symbolic transformations, in the usual Freudian sense, of "what happened." Sontag owes a good deal to Sartre and Camus, but even more to the auteurs of Last Year at Marienbad and L'Avventura. Death Kit has as its concern the failure of a man who has no true self. "Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Not really the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives." Diddy commits a murder, or thinks he commits a murder; there is no way of determining this, but what matters is how Diddy handles the possibility that he is a murderer, and how he tries to appropriate the self of a blind girl whom he selfishly "loves." Out of the materials of his life Diddy assembles his death; out of his failure the reader may assemble an understanding of vanity, inauthenticity, and death. Wholly successful or not, The Benefactor and Death Kit are haunting works, effective to the degree to which the reader can accept Sontag's powerful arguments elsewhere about the exhaustion of the naturalistic tradition. As the American critic E.D. Hirsch puts it, "Knowledge of ambiguity is not necessarily ambiguous knowledge."

Elmer Borklund

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Sontag, Susan

Sontag, Susan (1933– ) US writer, critic, and essayist. Sontag is perhaps best-known for her cultural criticism, such as Against Interpretation (1966). She has also written novels and short stories, including The Benefactor (1963), Death Kit (1967), and In America (1999). The influence of Roland Barthes and structuralism are particularly evident in her Illness as Metaphor (1978) and Aids and its Metaphors (1986).

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