By Robin Lippincott, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Faculty (Fiction)
Circa Late ’70s
The first time I ever saw or heard of her was on The Dick Cavett Show in the latter half of the 1970s. I was still living in Central Florida at the time, still living, in fact, with my parents. If you had said the word “intellectual” to me then I would have immediately conjured the image of a boring, old, straight, white man. But then suddenly there she was, Susan Sontag.
Yes, she was beautiful, and she also had style—by which I don’t mean fashion but a sense of self; she was exciting to look at and to listen to, not only the way she spoke but also her ideas.
I went to the bookstore, bought and read Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. They were among only a handful of books I carried with me at first when I moved from Florida to Boston. Over the ensuing years I read everything that Sontag published, and I also saw her read from her work, and speak, many times; I even met her once.
Susan Sontag, 1974
In her book Sempre Susan, Sigrid Nuñez, who knew Sontag, writes, “Her influence on how I think and write has been profound…. She was a natural mentor…you could not… spend any significant time with her and avoid being mentored…. I cannot recall a single book she recommended that I was not glad to have read.”
Though I did not know Susan Sontag, I would say that this was also true for me, and I have heard that it was true for many other writers as well. It was because of Sontag, after all, that I first learned about Simone Weil, Jean Genet, Nathalie Sarraute, Robert Bresson, Roland Barthes, John Berger, Glenway Westcott, Howard Hodgkin, Anne Carson, Leonid Tsypkin, W. G. Sebald, and so many others. She almost always made me stretch.
Here are just a few quotes from her work (Sontag was endlessly quotable):
“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Illness as Metaphor
And here, writing of Elizabeth Hardwick’s great novel Sleepless Nights, which she called a work of “mental weather”:
“The torment of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the disguise, and in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs. Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.” “Where the Stress Falls”
And then there’s this little gem from her first novel, The Benefactor:
“Many people consider dreams as the trash-bin of the day: an occupation that is undisciplined, unproductive, asocial. I understand. I understand why most people regard their dreams as of little importance. They are too light for them, and most people identify the serious with what has weight. Tears are serious; one can collect them in a jar. But a dream, like a smile, is pure air. Dreams, like smiles, fade quickly.”
Sontag’s fiction has been unfairly disparaged. Her great short story “The Way We Live Now,” which has twenty-six narrators, was first published in The New Yorker and ultimately collected in The Best American Short Stories of the Century. And several of the stories in the collection I, Etcetera, especially “Debriefing,” “Project for a Trip to China,” and “Unguided Tour,” expanded the form and became touchstones for me and many other writers; I teach “Debriefing” often. The Volcano Lover, Sontag’s penultimate novel, is a tour de force.
Over the many years, I always looked to Sontag for guidance, in terms of who to read, what to see, etc. She died in 2004 after a third bout with cancer; she was only 71. There is now no one whose opinion I trust or respect or value as much, and so I am finding my way alone, more or less, after having been mentored by her, though I carry her influence with me always.
A final word: it has become chic and fashionable to dismiss, even to make fun of Sontag’s seriousness, as Wayne Koestenbaum recently did (when for years he openly admired Sontag and admitted her profound influence on him and his work). But I am with Sigrid Nuñez when she writes, “I am grateful to have had as an early model someone who held such an exalted, unironic view of the writer’s vocation.”
(Reposted in honor of the release of Sontag’s Debriefing: Collected Stories)