As a books-besotted teenager in the 1990s, I spent many hours poring over the pages of The Writer’s Desk, a remarkable collection of Jill Krementz’s photographs of authors in their abodes. I remember making a mental distinction between the authors who appeared to be spontaneously at work — Katherine Anne Porter hunching over a marked-up manuscript page or George Plimpton pulling a page from a typewriter — and those who, seemingly reluctant to be caught in the act of writing, looked to be posing for Krementz.
Two portraits, in particular, struck me as pompously aloof: one of Joan Didion, who is shown sitting a few feet out from an unused typewriter while staring into the lens unsmilingly; and one of Susan Sontag, who is seen, holding a cigarette, at the far end of a large table brimming with books, papers, a rotary telephone, and a conspicuously positioned copy of The New York Review of Books (one of the writer’s favorite outlets) — all the signifiers of a literary life.
To my adolescent eyes, Didion and Sontag, in their imperious inactivity, seemed to be expressing the idea that the act of artistic creation was somehow too sacred to be captured by a camera. And in Sontag’s case, the image also suggested a writer more interested in projecting than creating.
While one obviously can’t form reliable conclusions about a writer on the basis of her countenance in a single photograph, Benjamin Moser’s remarkably perceptive and penetrating new biography of Sontag in many ways confirms my snap judgment. Posing, it turns out, was not just something she did in front of a camera. About Sontag’s high-school journals, Moser writes: “A feeling of posing, of straining to come across as something she was not, pervades these writings. There is a gap not only between the person she is and the person others perceive, but also, more acutely, between herself and some higher power watching over her.”
Of course, Sontag was far from the first teenager to judge herself against her heroes, but she was unique in continuing to affect a persona of cultural-gatekeeping high priestess throughout her life; in some ways, she embodies a highbrow version of the Texas saying “All hat, no cattle.” In fact, Sontag so completely internalized her role — affecting a snobbish manner in interviews, adopting an oddly formal writing style — that she became a kind of symbol of a prepackaged intellectual. When, in his 1998 satire Celebrity, Woody Allen needed a cameo from someone who instantly suggested “successful New York businessman,” he cast (you guessed it) Donald Trump; by the same token, when, in his masterful 1983 faux documentary Zelig, he needed a recognizable representative of the intelligentsia, he turned to Sontag. Was she in on the joke?
Possibly. To paraphrase the literary critic Harold Bloom, Sontag suffered from the anxiety of aspirations. As the older of two daughters reared in an intellectually uncurious household in the Southwest — first in Tucson, then in Southern California — Sue (as she was then called) seems to have been almost pitifully aware that she lacked the qualifications to easily parachute into the roles she imagined for herself.
“To be a traveler, to be a writer — in my child mind they started off as the same thing,” Sontag wrote in an essay expressing her early enthusiasm for travel writer Richard Halliburton, though her dream destination was not so much a place as a phase of life: She wished to flee what she felt to be the tyranny of youth. In an interview with C-SPAN in 2003, she expressed a measure of regret over never having savored the routine pleasures of childhood. “I think that childhood was wasted on me, which, of course, is a great pity,” she said.
While some adolescents in 1940s-era Southern California were devotees of movie stars or popular singers, Sontag had her sights set on another local celebrity: the novelist Thomas Mann. Let the bobby-soxers have Frank Sinatra; she had the author of Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain. In 1987, The New Yorker published Sontag’s dazzling (and, as Moser tells it, apparently embellished) account of her impromptu visit to Mann when she was a student. The essay, titled “Pilgrimage,” conveys a palpable sense of the author’s inferiority in the presence of the great man. While in his company, Sontag worries over how she will be perceived by the eminence; such is her snobbery that she grimaces when he assumes that, as an American, she must be an admirer of Hemingway.
Sontag’s accelerated admittance into adulthood began in earnest at the University of Chicago, where she enrolled at the precocious age of 15. There, two years later, barely having met the sociology professor Philip Rieff, she agreed to become his wife. Perhaps inevitably, the marriage disintegrated, foretelling her resistance to conventional mores. “I thought marriage was for having children, a traditional family,” Rieff said in an interview in 1990. “I just couldn’t adjust to the kind of family life she wanted.” In later life, she became the partner of photojournalist Annie Leibovitz.
The Rieff–Sontag nuptials produced a son, David (an acclaimed writer in his own right), as well as a classic book, Freud: The Mind of the Moralist (1959), which was long attributed to Philip Rieff but which, Moser persuasively claims, featured substantial work done by Sontag. “Susan was spending every afternoon rewriting the whole thing from scratch,” said Minda Rae Amiran, a friend who was present while the couple worked on the book. This is plausible since, if there ever was a writer who possessed a more pinched or strained style than Sontag, it was Rieff.
What’s more, Moser convincingly argues that Sontag and Rieff — despite their decades-long estrangement and deep incompatibility — remained in tune with each other in their shared disdain for mass culture. While Rieff described the profane hip-hop group 2 Live Crew in apocalyptic terms in his book My Life among the Deathworks (2006), Sontag claimed in a 1992 interview to have learned only recently of the existence of the cultural critic Camille Paglia (whose blockbuster book Sexual Personae had been published in 1990) and to have read the transcript of, rather than watched, the Republican National Convention. “Oh, she is so out of it,” Paglia said, commonsensically, in response. And, indeed, sometimes Sontag and Rieff called to mind David Cross’s affected intellectual character on the HBO series Mr. Show with Bob and David — the one who says he doesn’t own a television and watches only foreign films.
If she had produced a body of work that was more substantial and enduring, Sontag’s solemn self-importance would be more tolerable. Yet her output never lived up to her pretensions. Her publications often emerged at a crawl. A quarter century elapsed between her second novel, the barely remembered Death Kit (1967), and her third, the melodramatic and entertaining The Volcano Lover (1992).
Her novels always possessed more head than heart — a judgment that applies even to such relatively accessible works as The Volcano Lover and In America (1999) — and her essays, while considerably less strained, lose their impact as their subject matter fades from view. After all, how many readers today are familiar with, say, the cult films of Jack Smith, or Jean-Paul Sartre’s book on Jean Genet (to name the focus of two essays from her 1966 collection Against Interpretation). In an age of Instagram and iPhone cameras, will readers still turn to a text as musty as On Photography (1977)? Moser concedes that AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) is thin, unemotional gruel next to, say, such works as Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
While he is more admiring of her work than I am, Moser does not skirt over Sontag’s profound limitations, including several instances of plagiarism. After the publication of In America, a novel based on the true story of a Polish actress who rose to stardom in America, Sontag was confronted with accusations that she had borrowed too liberally — or at least too absentmindedly — from previously published historical material about the actress. (“I distinguish between writers and sources,” she told the New York Times, insisting that mere “sources” need not be credited.) Even worse, in the final speech she would deliver in her life, Sontag barely disguised her unattributed borrowings from a piece by Laura Miller in The New York Times Book Review.
In Sontag’s final years, her strengths, as well as her faults, came into focus. As Moser recounts in sometimes excruciating detail, a decades-long, on-and-off tussle with cancer ultimately led to her death in 2004. While one must admit her gallantry, her refusal in those last years to admit that death had the upper hand suggests a life securely tethered to the tangible and estranged from the eternal. After being told by a doctor’s assistant to “concentrate on your spiritual values,” Sontag — who once championed Simone Weil, no less — is said to have replied: “I have no spiritual values!” In the end, her decision to undergo experimental treatments that seemed to do little but perpetuate her suffering — like her lifelong embarrassment at needing sleep, comically described here — suggests a person who wished, Icarus-like, to defeat the laws of nature.
At the same time, Sontag’s love for living also reflects a curious, indirect endorsement of capitalism. Despite the abstruse quality of her writing, as well as her consistently left-wing politics, by the early 1980s she had reasonably concluded that Reader’s Digest, not The Nation or The New Statesman, had been the saner voice when it came to Communism. (This was one of Sontag’s best moments.) Furthermore, her much-commented-upon library — which she referred to as “the greatest library in private hands in the world” — is, arguably, the sign of a healthily materialistic disposition. Could someone not reared in a land of free markets pursue book collecting so ravenously? “Susan had long stunned others with her appetite: for food, for culture, for experience,” Moser concludes.
Yet being ravenous is not tantamount to being brilliant. Readers will walk away from this admirable biography with a measure of pity for a woman who put such effort into molding her life a certain way — but, in the absence of the literary greatness she sought, the question must be asked: Was it worth it?
This article appears as “In Pursuit of the Literary Life” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.