Susan Sontag: A Biography
by Daniel Schreiber,
translated by David Dollenmayer.
Northwestern University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 296 pages, $36.

“Susan Sontag, as F. R. Leavis said of the Sitwells, belongs less to the history of literature than to that of publicity.” This salvo from Joseph Epstein would undoubtedly be termed neoconservative by Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag’s latest biographer. Schreiber never quite explains what he means by “neoconservative” in his intellectually incoherent narrative. But it seems that virtually anyone who has qualms about treating Sontag as a major writer and the public intellectual of her time invites Schreiber to label them reactionary. In this biographer’s world a neoconservative is ipso facto a bad hat. The truly odd thing, though, is that the criticisms of Sontag by so-called neoconservatives are the same postmortem criticisms her own friends supplied to Schreiber. In other words, only those inside the Sontag tent are allowed to affix their charges to the indictment because, as these accusers are quick to add, Sontag must be forgiven her transgressions. Why will become apparent anon.

Doubts about Sontag’s stature fester in Schreiber’s narrative like an open wound that he constantly tries to close with tributes to her influence, her magnetism, her beauty (Schreiber, like a gushing biographer of a Hollywood star, marvels at how well-preserved Sontag remained as she aged), her good deeds, her courage, her assistance to young writers, and on and on and on.

So what made Susan Sontag a cynosure of her epoch? It is not too much to say—or even gush using the expected cliches—that she burst upon the New York scene in the 1960s, a tall, dark beauty appearing in photographs on the book jackets of an avant garde novel, The Benefactor, and an iconoclastic collection of essays, Against Interpretation. She was made to look like the femme fatale in a film noir. And she was a killer—in this case of the New York intellectuals, a group of leading lights illuminating Partisan Review, which published the work of Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, and the journal’s editors, William Phillips and Philip Rahv, among others. Whatever their differences, these writers united in their devotion to modernism, to high literary art, and to the notion that mass culture and its popular derivatives could not mix with great works of art. Sontag entered the precincts of Partisan Review, having bewitched Phillips and bested the skeptical Rahv, proclaiming that the Beatles as well as Beethoven deserved the best intellectual treatment first-class writers could provide. Can I not dance to rock-and-roll and also read Kafka? Sontag asked the question with such sangfroid that legions of the cognoscenti gravitated to her trend-setting, epigrammatic remarks. Sontag and her ideas traveled well. She wasa great platform performer and looked good on television, too. Andy Warhol shot her screen test.

But how did Sontag retain her hold on her intellectual fans from the 1960s into 1990s and beyond? She did so by employing the time-tested American trick of self reinvention. When the argument of Against Interpretation that art is a matter of form, not content—that conveying messages is not the purpose of art, but that art in itself is the message—got stale and became a staple of too many critics, Sontag switched sides. In “Fascinating Fascism,” she declared that the content of Leni Riefenstahl’s films and photographs is irretrievably fascist and cannot be countermanded by considerations of form and style. At every stage of her career, Sontag performed a similar volte face, saying, for example, that communism is fascism with a human face—although earlier she had shouted “Viva Fidel!” The capper on this career-long repudiation of her own ideas came when she said she never really believed what she wrote in Against Interpretation. And, she added, she never really liked the nouveau roman that her some of her own work—The Benefactor, for example—was said to emulate. In fact, when her novel The Volcano Lover became a bestseller, she even claimed that she would not be upset if posterity favored her novels and forgot her essays. Her last works of fiction were essentially conventional historical novels, as Schreiber admits, so all her pretensions about subverting conventional narrative became . . . well, just pretensions.

But Sontag, so expert at marketing herself, always proclaimed her recantations as discoveries, bold revisions by an intellectual who was always ready to reconsider and deepen her understanding of art and politics. And in some cases—as with her best books, On Photography and Illness as Metaphor—she did succeed in exploring the play of ideas that have made these works classics. Similarly, her literary portraits in Under the Sign of Saturn display an inquiring intellect that remains beguiling and provocative. All these works show her arguing with herself, revealing a powerful mind at work. They constitute the core of what will probably remain as her legacy.

Sontag will also live on because of her place in literary history and for the way she created, like a world-class politician, a following, one which to this day arms itself against any critic or biographer who dares to write from outside its circle. A case in point is Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock. This was the first Sontag biography, which Schreiber dismisses as a plot executed by two neoconservatives who are filled with personal animus and obsessed with scandal and gossip. No part of that characterization is true, but Schreiber would not know as much because he does not for a moment consider how that biography came to be published by W. W. Norton.

In any event, nothing in that first biography compares with the forthright criticisms that Schreiber and Sontag’s own friends deliver. Here is a sampling:

The image she created of herself was too compelling. Even she succumbed to it. (Schreiber summarizing Salman Rushdie)

Her descriptions of her reading serve above all to promote the aura of genius in which Sontag consciously wrapped herself later in life. (Schreiber)

She could be very, very nice to people—even seductive—to people she wanted something from. She just could not talk to stupid people. (Richard Howard)

But even her best friends, such as Stephen Koch and Richard Howard, say that in these years [1984–88] Sontag’s egotism was “difficult” or even “unbearable.” (Schreiber)

Sometimes her demands could be monstrous, but at The New York Review of Books we felt that she was our monster. (Darryl Pinckney)

Richard Howard reports that he and other PEN members asked Sontag to take this important step [declaring her lesbianism] for the movement in the hope that it would increase public acceptance of gays and lesbians. (Schreiber)

[S]he could mobilize Andrew Wylie, Roger Straus, and their attorneys when she wanted to prevent the publication of something unpleasant about her. (Schreiber)

Compared to the studied, circumspect language of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, the above remarks tell a far more damning story. Richard Howard, by the way, stated in writing to the authors of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon that he did not know Sontag well enough to comment about her. The fault of that first biography is that it was the first and that it was not sanctioned by Sontag, even though some of those close to Sontag did speak to the biographers on and off the record.

Schreiber condemns Rollyson and Paddock for outing Sontag’s lesbianism—as if lesbianism is itself a scandal. And then, almost in the next breath, he quotes Howard, who knew quite well that her writing on AIDS would have had a far more powerful impact if she made a statement about her own sexuality. And it was not only neoconservatives, but alsothe residents of besieged Sarajevo who, in Schreiber’s words, thought Sontag “more interested in promoting herself as the heroine of a city in ruins.”

The question remains as to why Sontag’s friends and Sontag herself could excuse not merely her bad behavior but all her preening and prevarication. She could be charming, spirited, generous, and powerfully supportive of other writers’ careers, but her friends knew what it meant to enjoy Sontag’s company and to remain in her good graces. Schreiber reports the hold Sontag had on friends but is incapable of understanding the consequences: “[Ariel] Dorfman and [Robert] Wilson, with all their theater experience, could not bring themselves to criticize her work even when Sontag complained bitterly that her plays were not performed. . . .” This behavior is intellectual and artistic cowardice of a very high order, one that allowed Susan Sontag to dismiss her critics—to say nothing of her biographers.

If no one is willing to tell the monarch the truth, what is she supposed to believe? In short, it was not merely that Susan Sontag believed in the legend of her own greatness; the concerted and loyal efforts of her retinue helped maintain the train of her literary majesty. That Schreiber cannot see the evidence before him is remarkable, but no more remarkable than the willful blindness of the entire Sontag contingent. From biographies, however, readers ought to expect much more.  

Carl Rollyson is the author of Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.