Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA

Writers Off the Page: Susan Sontag - Part One: “This God-Damned Celebrity Culture”

Episode Summary

Writers Off the Page: Susan Sontag - Part One: “This God-Damned Celebrity Culture” The first of four parts, Evan Solomon talks to Sontag about the cult of personality surrounding authors and their work and why she prefers writing novels over writing essays, despite being associated with some of the best and more provocative essays written in the 20th century.

Episode Notes

Books by Susan Sontag:

Illness as Metaphor/AIDS and Its Metaphors

In America: A Novel

Fascinating Fascism: Susan Sontag on Leni Riefenstahl (The New York Review of Books)

Notes on "Camp"

Books about Susan Sontag:

Sontag: Her Life and Work by Benjamin Moser

About the Host:

Novelist Randy Boyagoda is a professor of English at the University of Toronto and principal of St. Michael’s College, where he holds the Basilian Chair in Christianity, Arts, and Letters. He is the author of three novels: Original Prin, Beggar's Feast, and Governor of the Northern Province. His fiction has been nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize (2006) and IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize (2012), and named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Selection (2012 and 2019) and Globe and Mail Best Book (2018). He contributes essays, reviews, and opinions to publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, First Things, Commonweal, Harper’s, Financial Times (UK), Guardian, New Statesman, Globe and Mail, and National Post, in addition to appearing frequently on CBC Radio. He served as President of PEN Canada from 2015-2017.

Music is by Yuka.

This podcast series is produced by Toronto Public Library, in collaboration with TIFA (Toronto International Festival of Authors) and Library and Archives Canada.


Episode Transcription

Writers Off the Page: Susan Sontag - Part One: "This God-Damned Celebrity Culture"


RANDY: Welcome to Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA. This podcast series is a part of a multi-year digital initiative from the Toronto Public Library, From the Archives, which presents curated and recently digitized audio, video and other content from the archives of some of Canada’s most important institutions and organizations. I'm Randy Boyagoda.

RANDY: Today's episode of Writers Off the Page features the first of four parts with American writer and thinker Susan Sontag.

Teaser: You're just reflecting this goddamn celebrity culture. I don't see myself that way. And anyone who cares about literature doesn't think that way and shouldn't think that way.[...] This is the false consciousness that we're all being taught to look at people. I've had people come up to me and say, "Oh you are my favorite American writer. Of course, I haven't read anything you've written, but I've read so much about you." And more and more we are interested in these issues of what do you like as a person and judging people by how they present themselves as celebrities, essentially entertainment value.


Imagine, just for a moment, what Susan Sontag would think, and more terrifying still, what she would say, if I told her that I first heard of her in 1988 … thanks to a Kevin Costner movie. Partway through Bull Durham, a minor league epic about minor league baseball tragedies and glories, Costner’s character delivers a speech to Susan Sarandon’s character about the assorted intellectual Everyman things he believes about life and baseball — he believes in the soul, the hanging curveball, the need for a constitutional amendment banning astro-turf, and also “that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated crap.”

Naturally, being a 1980s teenage suburban bookworm, hearing a writer’s name in a baseball movie caught my attention. I sought out Sontag’s work, becoming one of many, I am sure, who began reading one of modern America’s most substantial and formidable writers and thinkers thanks to a Kevin Costner rom-com. That irony, it must be said, owes much to Sontag herself. I think she’d hate that point, even more.

From the 1960s through to her death in 2004, she wrote substantive, searching and provocative books and essays about ideas, politics, and culture that undermined neat and clear divisions of high and low, popular and elite, personal and political, private experience and public relevance. The very achievement of inviting readers of serious intellectual journals like Partisan Review and The New York Review of Books to consider things like camp aesthetics, and celebrity culture, made Sontag a celebrity in her own right. For decades, she was both a source of scouring and revelatory insights about American life and much else, and also a figure folded right into that red, white and berserk mix, herself.

People who wanted to make sense of things like the all-pervasive effect of celebrity culture on American life — particularly felt during a presidential election year — looked to Susan Sontag, and these same people, and many more, wanted to make sense of Susan Sontag as an intellectual celebrated to the point of celebrity.

I shiver, just saying that, because of how Sontag responded to such ironies, which she would have considered cheap, facile distractions from what really mattered: not her, but her writing. Indeed, in this episode, the first of four parts, Sontag talks with Evan Solomon about the plague of personality-driven intellectual work ordered to and by what she calls, with haute disdain, “entertainment values.” In fact, she more or less publicly rips into poor Solomon for contributing to this very problem with how he decides to begin their conversation! Don’t worry – things get better between them, in future episodes, but for now, here’s an introduction to the voice and mind of Susan Sontag – it’s restless, reactive and above all else resists the obvious and easy. Dare I say the result is enlightening and entertaining?

This interview was recorded live at the International Festival of Authors (now called TIFA) in October of 2000, when Sontag came to town upon the occasion of the publication of her novel, In America.

Evan Solomon (ES): Thanks for coming. Hi, Susan. I just wanted to give a very brief introduction to you, because you might forget, and to everybody else. I have met Susan... I met her in her apartment in New York in March, I remember it vividly. It's a faded photocopy of an image for Susan, I think. And the first thing... Before I met you, I have to tell you that I guess the most... Everyone had warned me...


Susan Sontag (SS): Listen, can we cut to the chase?

ES: Go ahead.

SS: No. I mean, I have heard this.

ES: I know.

SS: As an introduction, a thousand times.

ES: No, but hang on.

SS: And it doesn't get any more amusing.


SS: If I were a male writer, I don't think you would be prefacing our conversation to which I look forward to with great pleasure in this way by telling people that before you met me "everyone warned you that" dot dot dot. "But then when you met me, you discovered" dot dot dot. I don't think it's helpful, I think it's hostile without your meaning it consciously to be hostile. I think it's hostile. I think it's patronizing, I think it's misogynistic. Well, I'm not gonna...

ES: But there is a point which is, there is a persona about you that has preceded you, and you fought it, since I think, since you really, in the '60s, when the Against Interpretation came out, there was your persona and your work and you've been battling to separate those two things it strikes me anyway since the very beginning. And you've heard all those clichés, the dark Lady of American letters and there's even though even worse clichés about it, and they are possibly chauvinist clichés. The Natalie Wood of American letters, and I've heard those things. Well, how do you separate those two things?

SS: One doesn't exist except when I'm forced to engage in this kind of conversation. It doesn't exist. You're just reflecting this goddamn celebrity culture. I don't see myself that way. And anyone who cares about literature doesn't think that way. And shouldn't think that way.

SS: I only ask to discuss my books and my work. I don't see myself as a persona. This is the false consciousness that we're all being taught to look at people. I've had people come up to me and say, "Oh you are my favorite American writer. Of course, I haven't read anything you've written, but I've read so much about you." I'm sorry, I don't have to deal with that I don't have to deal with that and I find it very irritating to begin by having to deal with it. I haven't fought it, I never think about it, it doesn't exist for me, except in interviews. When one time out of three somebody tells me what they thought I was gonna be like and then discovers I'm not like that, that's the only time I ever think about it. I would never think about it.

ES: You know in your book, the main character, I think one of the profound themes of the book is about reinvention, people reinventing themselves and it strikes me that your past is about reinventing yourself. And when I read this book, I thought, there was a different Susan Sontag, a reinvented version of Susan Sontag that I had come to know through other books like Illness as Metaphor, AIDS and its... Would you say that you have a capacity for reinvention? Self-reinvention.

SS: Well, you see I don't think my books are about me, I think I'm just the author of my books, and I don't think I'm important, I don't think... It's not about me, my books are not an excuse to talk about me, I'm just the person who writes these books but what's interesting to me is the work that I do. But if you want me to respond more generally to the question. Yes, I think, and it's very North American of me, I am very devoted to the project of self-reinvention. It's something when I have spent a lot of my adult life in Europe and I never feel so American as when I'm in Europe, and I discover how fatalistic people are, many people I meet. Very clever people, people full of energy, but they're quite fatalistic about the future and they feel very imprisoned by their past and by their origins and I find myself, I'm certainly no patriot saying very chirpily, "Well, but of course you can do and of course you can do it, you just have to try." And then I think, "Oh I'm just an American. I'm just an American with that strange emphasis on willpower and that belief that you can overthrow your past and make something new.

SS: So I guess it is true of me as a person. And therefore, to the extent that this new novel, In America, is about European people discovering America, that they become, they are very drawn by that idea of self-reinvention. But once again, look, I don't wanna be hard on you, but once again, I don't think my work is about me, and I don't think it's an excuse to be about me, or I don't do, if I had to be really honest, if I could publish my books, anonymously, I would love to do it, or under a pseudonym. I mean, I don't think I... I find that that attention is anti-literary. We're so interested in people's psychology.

SS: I mean in my own country, now this election is about which personality you find more agreeable, do you like under-achieving Mr. Bush, the Texas serial killer or do you like smarty pants Gore who so identifies with everybody he talks with that he says, "Well, I did that too" or some... Whatever. And which do you like? And the issue about which one would actually be more competent or is better prepared to be president, becomes secondary to whether what you think of their personality. And more and more we are interested in these issues of what do you like as a person and judging people by how they present themselves as celebrities, essentially entertainment value. So I, of course, I'm a very old-fashioned person...

ES: What about, obviously I can sense your views on biographical criticism. However, when I think about your two different writings on Leni Riefenstahl for example, where at one point you argued early on in your essays that we have... That morality has no place in art. And then later you re-evaluated your view of Leni Riefenstahl and in fact it was in a sense a form of biographical criticism, there was a way you had to know about her and her lack of ability to separate her art from propaganda to really find the meaning in the work. So I wonder if biographical criticism or biographical investigation has any value at all.

SS: Well, I certainly evolved, in that, my essays were attempts to advance positions which I thought were underrepresented. They were very adversarial or they... Or to put it a little less pretentiously, they were very reactive when I saw that somebody everybody was saying this, I wanted to say that. So those early essays in which I tried to reformulate a kind of formalist or aesthetist point of view, and in which in one of them I did mention in passing, Riefenstahl as a particularly hard example, and I could have taken Celine a really important major 20th century French writer who was absolutely pro Nazi and virulently, antisemitic. I could have taken Celine instead Riefenstahl and I wanted to say if this is valuable, according certain criteria, literary criteria in the case of Celine or cinematic criteria in the case of Riefenstahl, then I wanna defend that and say the particular views of this person are irrelevant because the larger thing is form. And content is, in a way, a function of form.

SS: That was a position that I did espouse in the early '60s, mid '60s well not early '60s mid '60s, late '60s. I wasn't writing in the early '60s because it was absolutely not what anybody was saying. Then what can I say? I had a lot more influence than I ever expected to have [chuckle], and suddenly I started to see versions of my view or what looked like my view or what some people thought were my view, all over the place. And of course I began, I became quite critical of it and wanted to advance some other position, and I saw a certain kind of aestheticist or a formalist point of view being carried to what I thought were almost nihilistic extremes, so I began to argue with myself or against the received view.

SS: And at that point, and the year is exactly 1975, I was invited by a magazine, the New York Review of Books to deal with a volume of photographs, by Leni Riefenstahl whom I really didn't know anything about except that she was a Nazi propagandist, there is no doubt about that. And I began to look into something about her life and her career, and discovered, among other things, that her whole account of her life was a tissue of lies, of very easily verifiable lies.

SS: And so, I included in my analysis of her photographic work, and referring finally back, this was a volume of still photographs called The Last of the Nuba. But going back to those films from the '30s, those propaganda films I included biographical elements. 'Cause I thought it was interesting and because I was doing it for a magazine. It's a very untypical essay for me in many respects, for one thing, I hardly ever attack, I really much prefer to praise or to write about things I admire. I don't in fact [unint.] there is a single essay like that one, which was absolutely on the attack, and I reached for every instrument of attack, including the fact that with a very minimal amount of checking of sources, I discovered that everything from the date of her birth on to everything was lies, but it doesn't mean that I now think biographical approach tells you how to look at work. What interested me in that essay and it was an evolution, it was, to was to ask, is there such a thing as a fascist aesthetic? And that's what that the essay is about, but it's really in a way, not so much that I think biographical criticism is important, but I was already struggling to free myself from the essay form and to move toward what interests me most of all, which is an expanded notion of fiction and the story of lives.

ES: What can fiction do, novels do that you couldn't do as an essayist? Because there is a sense that you are a great essayist, and you have said that you much prefer now novels that they give you a more robust way of expressing things. And I'm wondering what is the... What can you do differently in a novel that you couldn't do in an essay form?

SS: Well, once again, although robust way of expressing myself is a very pretty phrase, I wouldn't say that I'm writing novels to express myself. I'm really rather programmatically against the idea of self-expression. I mean, of course, I am expressing myself, but it's absolutely a by-product of what I do. It's not the point of what I do. I mean, I have to walk with my feet, but that's... I'm just the instrument or the lens, but I'm not doing it in order to express myself. Why I think novels are a much grander project is... Well, on one level, the very simple and obvious thing, that a novel has many voices, a novel can be written with many, many forms of narration. It can go, for instance, as the new novel In America does back and forth between first-person and third-person narration. Novels can include essayistic elements if you... You could call them digressions, but sometimes they seem to me very organic to the story. If you think about what the novel, let's call it the long fiction, has been for the last couple of centuries, I mean, think of Tom Jones, think of Vanity Fair, two great novels in English.

SS: Think of Moby Dick, my God, I mean, you could take half of Moby Dick and make it into a manual on whaling, and yet we call Moby Dick a novel. Think of Balzac, think of Tolstoy, think of Proust, think of all the passages about time and illness in The Magic Mountain, all the stuff about music in Mann's Doctor Faustus. I could go on and on citing great novels which have, you could say, essayistic elements. So the novel, how can I say, trumps the essay form in that it can include essayistic elements. But of course, they're grounded in the story, or in the mind of a character in the story. Whereas, when you start trying to make the essay fictional, of course, the form cracks open. The essay is a smaller form. I mean, it is a wonderful form, and the essay is a literary form, and I'm proud of some of the essays that I've written, and I worked very hard on them. I mean, some essays I spent as long as a year on to produce 30 pages. I wrote them over and over and over and over and over again. But it's just a much more ambitious form.

SS: And then there is also the fact that I am mentally very restless and so whenever I would finish an essay, even one that I'd worked a year on, that I just killed myself over to get right and say what I really thought was true and say it in the best way I could as intensely and eloquently and densely as possible with as much subtlety, as much whatever. And I'd get all through, and I'd say, "Well, that is the best I can do, but... " And I would turn it in or publish it in a book, and then I would think, "But there's always something more." Whereas... Because an essay has to be, in some ways, single voiced. Whereas a novel has many voices. With a novel, you can contradict yourself which, again, isn't about you, it's about honouring the complexity of reality. I mean, reality is complicated and there are many points of view of valid points of view, and you can show that in fiction. And in an essay, ultimately, you do have to sponsor... I mean, to be clear, you have to sponsor one way of thinking, or it's written in one voice.

SS: So that's why I prefer it, that's why I feel very liberated to have found a way of writing novels... Not that I expect always to write with this sort of novel like The Volcano Lover and In America, but anyway, to write bigger novels, novels that are more entertaining, more epic, more ambitious, more multi-voiced than I was able to do in the past. I mean, 'cause I did start as a fiction writer, but they were narrower. They were narrower. I was kind of trapped in a narrower idea of fiction.


RANDY: Susan Sontag was born in 1933, to parents of Jewish, Lithuanian, and Polish descent. She grew up in Los Angeles, studied in California, Chicago, Cambridge, MA, Paris and Oxford, and lived and wrote for the majority of her life in New York, where she died in 2004. She was survived by her long-time companion, the photographer Annie Liebowitz, and also by the writer David Rieff, her son from her marriage to the sociologist Philip Rieff.

Stay tuned for part two of this four-part series.


Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is a year-long podcast series that celebrates 40 years of the Toronto International Festival of Authors. It's produced by the Toronto Public Library. The Executive Producer is Gregory McCormick, and this episode was produced by Danielle McNally and me, Randy Boyagoda, with technical support from George Panayotou, Michelle De Marco, marketing support from Tanya Oleksuik, and research support from Marcella van Run.

Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA is the first part of a multi-year digital initiative called From the Archives, which features recently digitized audio, video and other content from some of Canada’s most important institutions and organizations.

For more about Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA, visit tpl.ca/podcasts where you will find links to the books mentioned in each episode and links to other relevant materials in TPL’s collections.

Music is by YUKA.

I'm Randy Boyagoda and we'll be back soon with another episode of Writers Off the Page: 40 Years of TIFA.