SUSAN SONTAG, improbably, seems a little nervous and ill at
ease speaking before an audience. She adjusts the microphone and
tries without success to tame a wisp of her trademark black hair,
shocked with white, that has fallen free of her ponytail.
As the leadoff speaker in the St. Louis Public Library's
Signature Series, Sontag has been given an hour to hold forth on
"the art of fiction," and she seems unsure of how to begin.
The small audience gathered in the main library's Great Hall
doesn't see m to mind, however. They expect Susan Sontag the young
feminist, essayist, critic and the voice that for many served as a
sort of intellectual Sherpa guide to the intentions of the
avant-garde in the 1950s and '70s. Most have not come expecting to
hear Susan Sontag, now 64, the novelist.
Either way, they will not be disappointed.
"I am less a collector than an accumulator," Sontag tells the
audience, and she begins to share her accumulated thoughts on
"Fiction is a voice," she says, "but I have always been a great
opponent of the idea that writing is self-expression. Fiction
always transcends the mere sense of self."
She quotes writer E.L. Doctorow on the defining difference
between essay and fiction: "I always prefer the thrown voice to my
own voice." She venerates the writing of Flaubert, in which "every
word had to be absolutely inevitable," and laments what she calls
"the atrophy of storytelling" in favor of meaning and symbolism in
much contemporary fiction.
"As if telling stories were somehow banal," she marvels.
Sontag describes, using multiple, rapid-fire examples, her take
on the sensibility of fiction. She speaks in digressions, a flurry
of commas and semicolons, embarking on tangents that career around
the academic and the popular, the esoteric and the accessible, but
always manages to bring the sentence under control. Pity the poorly
read person in the audience, as references to obscure European
writers are jumbled with an allusion to the movie "Robocop."
She then reads a passage from her 1992 novel "The Volcano
Lover," and the audience is rapt. A historical romance set in the
18th century, the novel was Sontag's first after nearly 25 years of
working almost exclusively in the essay form.
For her audience, it was a surprise, a departure from the Susan
Sontag they knew as a critic of Anglo-American fiction in her essay
"Against Interpretation" or the Sontag who perfectly captured the
absurd in her "Notes on Camp."
For Sontag, though, the novel is now the place she feels most
"I hope I will continue to write in many forms," she says, "but
the one that attracts me least at the moment is the essay form,
perhaps because I have done so much in it."
That wasn't always the case.
Her first efforts at fiction, "The Benefactor" and "The Death
Kit" (both published in the 1960s), received mixed reviews. Critics
considered them too self-conscious, even contrived, but nonetheless
praised Sontag's intelligence and the precision in her language.
Sontag, however, was her own harshest critic. "From my first
work with the novel form, I knew I could write really good essays,
but I didn't think I could write the sort of prose fiction I
Her eclectic interests and personal experiences provided the
raw mate rial for collections of essays such as "On Photography,"
"Styles of Radical Will" and "Under the Sign of Saturn."
In 1978, after her battle with breast cancer, she wrote
"Illness as Metaphor," brilliantly tracing the myths and mysteries
that attach them selves to disease and followed it a decade later
with "AIDS and Its Metaphors," an examination of how the HIV
epidemic was discussed.
Sontag made the essay form her pulpit, and in the process
gained recognition as one of America's most celebrated provocateurs.
She brought her insight to storytelling, directing several
plays and four feature-length films. Only occasionally did she
venture back into the realm of writing fiction, notably with a
play,"Alice in Bed" and a collection of short stories titled "I,