Susan Sontag on Storytelling, What It Means to Be a Moral Human Being, and Her Advice to Writers
“Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
By Maria Popova
Susan Sontag (January 16, 1933–December 28, 2004) spent a lifetime contemplating the role of writing in both the inner world of the writer and outer universe of readers, which we call culture — from her prolific essays and talks on the task of literature to her devastatingly beautiful letter to Borges to her decades of reflections on writing recorded in her diaries. But nowhere did she address the singular purpose of storytelling and the social responsibility of the writer with more piercing precision than in one of her last public appearances — a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. The speech is included in and lends its title to the endlessly enriching posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library), which also gave us Sontag on beauty vs. interestingness, courage and resistance, and literature and freedom.
Sontag begins with the quintessential question asked of, and answered by, all prominent writers — to distill their most essential advice on the craft:
I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”
Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.
For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.
What might Sontag say of the exponentially more exacting struggle against the cultural momentum of cynicism a mere decade later?
With the disclaimer that “descriptions mean nothing without examples,” Sontag points to Gordimer as the “living writer who exemplifies all that a writer can be” and considers what the South African author’s “large, ravishingly eloquent, and extremely varied body of work” reveals about the key to all great writing:
A great writer of fiction both creates — through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms — a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.
She cautions that despite all the noble uses of literature, despite all the ways in which it can transcend the written word to achieve a larger spiritual purpose — William Faulkner’s conviction that the writer’s duty is “to help man endure by lifting his heart” comes to mind — storytelling is still literature’s greatest duty:
The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) … Let the dedicated activist never overshadow the dedicated servant of literature — the matchless storyteller.
Echoing Walter Benjamin’s ideas on how storytelling transmutes information into wisdom — Sontag was a great admirer and rereader of his work — she adds:
To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days…) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge — albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.
Still, even now, even now, literature remains one of our principal modes of understanding.
Everybody in our debauched culture invites us to simplify reality, to despise wisdom. There is a great deal of wisdom in Nadine Gordimer’s work. She has articulated an admirably complex view of the human heart and the contradictions inherent in living in literature and in history.
Nearly half a century after E.B. White proclaimed that the writer’s duty is “to lift people up, not lower them down,” Sontag considers “the idea of the responsibility of the writer to literature and to society” and clarifies the terms:
By literature, I mean literature in the normative sense, the sense in which literature incarnates and defends high standards. By society, I mean society in the normative sense, too — which suggests that a great writer of fiction, by writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live.
Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.
In a sentiment that calls to mind French polymath Henri Poincaré’s assertion that creativity is the act of choosing the good ideas from among the bad ones, Sontag defines what a writer does and is:
Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories — certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story).
A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.
Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.
The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.
Repeating her memorable assertion that criticism is “cultural cholesterol,” penned in her diary decades earlier, Sontag considers the reactive indignation that passes for criticism:
Most notions about literature are reactive — in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive.
The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”
Writing nearly a decade before the golden age of ebooks and some years before the epidemic of crowdsourced-everything had infected nearly every corner of creative culture, Sontag once again reveals her extraordinary prescience about the intersection of technology, society, and the arts. (Some decades earlier, she had presaged the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture on the social web.) Turning a critical eye to the internet and its promise — rather, its threat — of crowdsourced storytelling, she writes:
Hypertext — or should I say the ideology of hypertext? — is ultrademocratic and so entirely in harmony with the demagogic appeals to cultural democracy that accompany (and distract one’s attention from) the ever-tightening grip of plutocratic capitalism.
[But the] proposal that the novel of the future will have no story or, instead, a story of the reader’s (rather, readers’) devising is so plainly unappealing and, should it come to pass, would inevitably bring about not the much-heralded death of the author but the extinction of the reader — all future readers of what is labeled as “literature.”
Returning to the writer’s crucial task of selecting what story to tell from among all the stories that could be told, Sontag points to literature’s essential allure — the comfort of appeasing our anxiety about life’s infinite possibility, about all the roads not taken and all the immensities not imagined that could have led to a better destination than our present one. A story, instead, offers the comforting finitude of both time and possibility:
Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.
Endings in a novel confer a kind of liberty that life stubbornly denies us: to come to a full stop that is not death and discover exactly where we are in relation to the events leading to a conclusion.
The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. And an ending that satisfies is one that excludes. Whatever fails to connect with the story’s closing pattern of illumination the writer assumes can be safely left out of the account.
A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.
Once again echoing Walter Benjamin’s wise discrimination between storytelling and information, Sontag considers the two contrasting models “competing for our loyalty and attention”:
There is an essential … distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.
For Sontag, these two modes of world-building are best exemplified by the dichotomy between literature and the commercial mass media. Writing in 2004, she saw television as the dominant form of the latter, but it’s striking to consider how true her observations hold today if we substitute “the internet” for every mention of “television.” One can only wonder what Sontag would make of our newsfeed-fetishism and our compulsive tendency to mistake the latest and most urgent for the most important. She writes:
Literature tells stories. Television gives information.
Literature involves. It is the re-creation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances — immures us in our own indifference.
The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless — or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.
By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate — the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading — offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.
Indeed, this notion of moral obligation is what Sontag sees as the crucial differentiator between storytelling and information — something I too have tussled with, a decade later, in contemplating the challenge of cultivating wisdom in the age of information, particularly in a media landscape driven by commercial interest whose very business model is predicated on conditioning us to confuse information with meaning. (Why think about what constitutes a great work of art — how it moves you, what it says to your soul — when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history on a site like Buzzfeed?)
Sontag, who had admonished against reducing culture to “content” half a century before the term became the currency of said commercial media, writes:
In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always … an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution — which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our media-disseminated glut of unending stories.
Television gives us, in an extremely debased and untruthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once… space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)
And therein lies Sontag’s greatest, most timeless, most urgently timely point — for writers, and for human beings:
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
At the Same Time is an indispensable read in its entirety — an eternally nourishing serving of wisdom from one of the most expansive and luminous minds humanity ever produced. Complement it with Sontag on love, art, how polarities imprison us, why lists appeal to us, and the joy of rereading beloved books, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on writing.
Published March 30, 2015