On Self Invention

In this month’s Bookforum, see Vivian Gornick‘s ballsy cover story Novelist as Metaphor: How did Susan Sontag’s self-identification affect her essays?, an evisceration a review of Sontag’s At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches.

Naturally, Bookforum doesn’t allow online access to this piece. So allow me to offer a bit for free:

Commenting on Sontag’s triumverate of essays on 9-11 published in the New Yorker, The New York Times’s op-ed pages, and Italy’s Il Manifesto, Gornick writes:

Taken in all, we have in these pieces a small, perfect demonstration of what Sontag’s give for writing could and could not accomplish. In her youth, it had made of her an electrifying champion and interpreter of a cultural sea change in America whose significance needed to be explained to the class of intellectuals from which she had emerged; and now, in her late middle age, having achieved for herself iconic status, it gave her the wherewithal to become a world-famous denouncer of the reactionary politics that altered culture had helped bring into existence. The one thing the gift could not do was provide her with the charged empathy necessary to the making of art.

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(Sadly, this is the largest image I can find of Elizabeth Peyton’s portrait of Sontag. I’ve remained ambivalent on Peyton, but of this one I am enamoured.)

On Sontag’s “reinvented” identity as a novelist following the 1992 publication of The Volcano Lover: A Romance and 2000’s In America:

From this time on…Sontag began pronouncing herself a novelist—in newspaper and television interviews, on lecture podiums, in acceptance speeches for the international prizes she received for her public ardor on behalf of the beleaguered of the world. With quite force, she said repeatedly “I am a novelist. That is how I wish to be remembered.” Many writers and readers, both in the United States and abroad, admired the strength of character it took to insist on a self-created identity not at all widely endorsed.

On Sontag’s tone during her final years:

In her last years, whether writing or speaking, Sontag did seem to be lecturing the reader or the listener on what the novel is, and is not; what words are, and are not; what the writer must think and do, be and become—at the risk of not being considered a writer at all. Her words and her tone were unashamedly, to use her own term, “prescriptive.” Often, they succeeded in sounding like the pomposities of an idealistic young person who has just discovered Literature with a capital l and is bent on making of it a Fate and a Destiny.

And finally, a line of hope from Sontag herself, as inserted stealthily into an otherwise self-aggrandizing speech delivered at the Los Angeles Public Library in 2004.:

The truth is, whatever it might occur to you to say about what a writer ideally should be, there is always something more.

UPDATE: Just received a kind note from the Editor of Bookforum, Eric Banks, who suggested that Gornick’s review may be added as free online content later on this month when her book publishes. He also assured me that Bookforum is undergoing a complete on-line overhaul, and will be offering more free online content plus complete access for subscribers. Nice.

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Filed under Bibliophilia, Criticism, Publications

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