Last reviewed: June 2017
American author and critic
January 16, 1933
New York, New York
December 28, 2004
New York, New York
Although Susan Sontag wrote novels and short fiction and considered herself a creative writer, her work as a critic is what established her as one of the most important American writers of her time. She was born in New York City in 1933 but grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and Los Angeles, California. She was a precocious student, thinking herself a writer at the age of eight, reading the Partisan Review in high school, and attending college by the time she was fifteen years old. Her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the University of Chicago and her master’s degrees in English literature and philosophy from Harvard University reflected her desire to understand the principles behind the subjects she studies. At Chicago, she met and married sociologist Philip Rieff; their son, David, was born in 1952. Susan and Philip were divorced in 1958.
Sontag’s forte was the extended essay, in which she examined her subject as a phenomenon around which her perceptions and insights arrange themselves. On Photography is a characteristic title. Neither a history of photography nor an interpretation of specific photographs, the book is an inquiry into what photography means. What is the significance of the medium as an art form? What are photographs supposed to prove or to show? Such questions are epistemological; that is, they are about ways of knowing. Sontag asks how photography knows the world, focusing on the subject as it relates to the nature of art and the representation of reality. Susan Sontag
Similarly, when Sontag investigated the way cancer has been used as metaphor, her attention was drawn to the integrity of the disease and to what it means to have cancer. Sontag herself was hospitalized for cancer treatment in 1976, and was later to die of leukemia. She had hard words for writers who simply use the cancer metaphor to describe various species of corruption. To do so, she argued, is to cloud what it means to have an illness—to insert a moral factor in the metaphor of disease. Thus, she protested the widespread use of military metaphors to justify the authoritarian social war against acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
When Sontag said in a famous essay of the same name that she is “against interpretation,” she had in mind the kind of criticism that dissects a subject and robs it of its vitality. The critic or commentator has to grasp a subject in its entirety, seeing it as a living totality, in order to convey its intricate structure and style. One of the reasons she favored films and made some of her own is that people seem to be able to respond to them in a holistic way and are willing to take this art form in all of its immediacy by surrendering themselves to it. She was inspired by the French New Novel and patterned her own fiction after its destruction of logical plots and psychological characterization. She aimed, instead, for sensory pleasure, an erotics of art that destroys hard categorizations. She favored suggestiveness over precision.
In virtually all of her writing, Sontag presented herself as a cutting-edge intellectual, deeply engaged with the politics and aesthetics of her time. Numerous honors, including a National Book Award nomination for Against Interpretation, the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Photography and Illness as Metaphor, a position as PEN president in 1987, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1990, testified to her enduring importance. Her work appeared in influential periodicals such as the Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books, and she traveled widely, appearing at many important public forums and lecture series. Whether it was a new trend in world history (such as the advent of Solidarity in Poland), a new illness (such as AIDS), or a trendy term (such as “camp”), Sontag was the critic who articulated public consciousness of these developments. Many of her essays became classics. In the 1990s, Sontag redirected her energy to creative projects. She wrote The Volcano Lover: A Romance, her first novel in twenty-five years, and Alice in Bed, a play about Alice James. In 1993, she brought a production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to Sarajevo during the Bosnian War.
Sontag spent much time in Europe and was heavily influenced by such thinkers as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. Like them, she was interdisciplinary, drawing upon art history, literary theory, and political philosophy. Like Barthes, she reflected on a society’s signs, on the language that is elaborated to describe phenomena. Like Benjamin, she was enough of a historian to want to know the conditions out of which art arises. Although she wrote as an intellectual, her criticism was insistent on the primacy of feeling, on a form of knowing that transcends analysis of particular elements. If she examined only certain aspects of her subjects, she nevertheless implied that they must be seen as no more than representative parts of a larger whole.
Sontag continued writing through the final years of her life, publishing the novel In America in 2000, for which she won a National Book Award. She was in a relationship with the photographer Annie Leibovitz from the late 1980s until Sontag's death in 2004. Her son, David, wrote about her final illness in the book Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir (2008).