Susan Sontag remains one of the most interesting minds in modern history, with provocative and prescient beliefs and opinions on everything from visual culture to love and sex to stereotypes and polarities to why lists appeal to us. But arguably her most timeless insights touch on the heart of her own creative material — literature.
In the spring of 1992, exactly ten years after her magnificent meditation on books in Letter to Borges, Sontag visited the 92nd Street Y in New York to deliver a lecture on the project and purpose of literature. Now, thanks to a new partnership with the Unterberg Poetry Center at the 92Y, who recorded the live event, I am proud and heartened to offer Sontag’s talk for our shared enrichment. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy.
On becoming a writer, writing itself (a subject Sontag pondered frequently in her diaries), and its osmotic relationship with reading — a fine addition to the collected wisdom of great writers:
What made me be a writer was that I was a passionate reader. I began reading at a very, very early age, and I’ve been a reading junkie ever since — I read all the time. I probably spend more time reading than any other thing I’ve done in my life, including sleeping. I’ve spent many, many days of my life reading eight and ten hours a day, and there’s no day that I don’t read for hours, and don’t ask me how I can do all the other things — I don’t know. The day has pockets — you can always find time to read.
Reading set standards. Reading opened up to me all these norms, or — to put it in a more naive and probably truthful way — ideals. So that to be part of literature, to be even the humblest, lowest member of the great multitude of people who actually dare to put words on paper and publish them, seemed to me the most glorious thing one could do.
Now, in this sort of book-drunken life … in this relation to reading, which is where the writing comes — I didn’t discover I had a talent; I discovered I wanted … to emulate, to honor, by trying to do it myself, as well as continuing to read it and love it and be inspired by it.
And I mean this most passionately. That’s where the standards came from, that’s where the ideas came from of what was good, what was right, what was better, that there was always something better and whatever you could do was by definition not good enough. The only thing that was good was what was hard to do, what you had to work very hard to do, or what was better than anything you could do.
Sontag goes on to explore the still-debated issue of gender in literature and the notion of how stereotypes imprison us:
That all came from books, and it came from the usual books that are now called “the cannon” — used to be called “classics,” which is not a bad term either — and most of those writers are men. It’s not my choice that they be men, but as far as we know, Homer and Shakespeare and Dante and Rabelais and so on, those writers, they’re mostly men. Of course… George Eliot and Virginia Woolf and Emily Dickinson and so on [are] absolutely first-class writers, but most great writers have been men — this is not to justify it, this is not to be happy about it, it’s just the way it is. For all the obvious reasons, we know why the majority of distinguished practitioners of most arts have been, up to this time, men — there’s nothing about the future, nothing about what ought to be, just what is.
Therefore, it was so natural to me to take the attitude that these were writers — in other words, Emily Dickinson isn’t a “woman poet” any more than Walt Whitman is a “male poet” — they’re just both poets. George Eliot isn’t a “woman writer,” whereas, let’s say, Dickens is just a “writer” — they were just writers…
I also live in a time in which it’s very important to me — and natural to me — to support and want to align myself with most aspects of the feminist agenda. I’ve always been a feminist — it’s not something I became. At a certain time, I had the honor of being called by Elizabeth Hardwick “somebody who is born a feminist.”
[But] there can be a contradiction, if you will. It is important to women coming to consciousness of the cultural disabilities under which women labor, in which their consciousness is formed, to make those distinctions — the distinctions that I want to, as a writer, not think about. They can be very important for women in general to think about. So there’s the contradiction — let’s say I do one thing as a citizen, as a civic person, and I do something else as a writer.
But… if I truly considered people and their lives over a long span of time — people with marriages and love affairs and careers, living in a conventional society — it could not be the case … that I would not be struck by the ways in which women think of themselves in subservient roles and in which they become dependent, or even crippled, by gender stereotypes. … Everybody knows it. What we say is what we have permission to say — we always know much more than we say, and we see much more than we acknowledge that we see, but at any given time there are conventions about what we say we can say and what we think we can think. And one of the interesting things about being a writer is to try to open that out a little bit.
Adding to Italo Calvino’s timeless definitions of what makes a classic, Sontag considers what a writer is and what literature means:
A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.
To be a writer, also — and this is the contradiction — demands a going inward and reclusiveness, just plain reclusiveness — not going out — staying home all the time — not going out with everybody else going to play…
In all of this, I am assuming a certain idea of literature, of a very exalted kind. I’m using the word “writer” to mean someone who creates, or tries to create, literature. And by “literature” I mean — again, very crude definition — books that will really last, books that will be read a hundred years from now.
Now, most people are not “writers” in that sense… 40,000 books a year are published in this country, and many of them are useful and are entertaining to some people. They have some constituency — they’re not part of literature. Literature is actually just this little tiny percentage of what is produced in book form. But, of course, that’s what I’m talking about — I would go as far as to say that no book is worth reading if it isn’t worth reading five times, or more… That’s what I mean by “literature” — a book that you would want, repeatedly, to read, to be inside you, to be part of your bloodstream.
In answering an audience question, Sontag adds her contribution to famous writers’ daily routines, fusing with characteristic elegance the practical and the philosophical:
Writers’ lives are really very boring. I get up in the morning, I make coffee, and I go to work. And I work until I drop… A day in the life of a writer — this writer — is getting up and doing it all day long, and all evening long, and sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning.
On the psychological value of writing by hand amidst a digital culture, a point that has amplified resonance two decades later:
I write by hand and then I type it. But I have to write the first draft by hand. Now, don’t tell me about the computer — I know the computer is wonderful. I remember one writer friend of mine … said, “I don’t want to use a computer because it’s too entertaining.” It’s not writers’ masochism that makes some few of us continue to hold out against this — it’s that it is better if it goes slower, at least I think so. It’s good to feel it in your hand and it’s good to be able to just think…
Maybe a writer who grows up with computers would not feel this way, but then, I think, the writing will be different. Let’s put it this way: Writing, like painting, is artisanal. It’s one of the few artistic activities which does require solitude. Most other art activities do involve people and are collaborative… To be an artist or a writer is to be this weird thing — a hand worker in an era of mass production.
In answering another audience question, Sontag considers what it takes to be — rather than become — a writer:
You have to be obsessed… [Being a writer] is not like something you want to be — it’s rather something you couldn’t help but be. But you have to be obsessed.
Otherwise, of course, it’s perfectly okay to write, in the way that it’s perfectly okay to paint or play a musical instrument — and why shouldn’t people do that? I deplore the fact that only writers can write, as it were? Why can’t people have that as an art activity? … But to actually want to make your life being a writer, it’s an auto-slavery … you are both the slave and the task-master. It’s a very driven thing.
Sontag, who considers herself unproductive despite her dozen published books by that point and her ample diaries, returns to the question of daily routines and writerly rituals:
The most productive writers I know have been the most rigidly scheduled, and I’m incapable of having a schedule… Alberto Moravia, the Italian writer who was enormously productive … told me that he started work every morning at a quarter to 8 and he quit at a quarter to 1, and that was it — that’s when he had lunch… And I said, “Well, what happens if you’re called to lunch at a quarter to 1 and you’re in the middle of a sentence?” And he said, “Well, I just stop. I just go and have lunch and go back the next day.” And I thought, I couldn’t do that to save my life. I have a feeling … it’s started! How could I? … I can’t leave it! It’s not even that I can’t leave it because I’m afraid that it would go away… I simply can’t.
It’s as hard as stopping peeing in the middle of peeing — excuse the simple-minded example, but just in the same way that it’s very hard to stop peeing once you’ve started, it seems to me, once you’ve started writing, that day, if there’s anything there, how could you stop?
(There’s a reason, indeed, why the creative process at its most immersive is called “flow,” and it’s perhaps this that Henry Miller touched into in his meditation on the joy of urination.)
On the absurdity of using “elitism” as a divisive and derogatory term, something that we still grapple with today:
I think most of what is called “elitist” is a mask for anti-intellectualism — I mean, there is such a thing as excellence.
Sontag ends on a remarkably prescient note about education, the broken system for which she had proposed a revolutionary intervention some two decades prior, and a system that remains just as broken two decades later:
The worst thing about [the system we live in], I suppose, is our educational system. And that is, perhaps, also the most hopeless thing in the system — it’s the most important thing that we should be changing, and it’s the thing we’re least likely to change. And if we don’t change that, basically we won’t change anything else.
Stay tuned for more excellent recordings from the 92Y archives, and explore more of Sontag enduring genius here.
Illustrated portrait of Sontag by Wendy MacNaughton for a previous collaboration