7 minute read

Susan Sontag Biography

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 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. 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.



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: PlaysAs 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. FilmsDuet 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 else—usually historical, ethical or psychological paraphrase—is 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 myself—myself 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

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Nate Smith Biography - Fought His Way into the Union to Theodosius II Biography