Bookish Birthdays: Susan Sontag

16th Jan 2012


Whether neglecting to focus on a particular genre (and sticking to it) to keeping her audience in mind while writing, she wasn’t a rule-breaker so much as someone who would have been puzzled if you had asked her about them at all.

Perhaps because of this, Sontag lived a full and fascinating life as a public figure, becoming a political commentator, activist, and theorist on a wide range of subjects from photography to the Bosnian war.

Sontag was a prolific novelist, essayist, having published four novels, six collections of essays, as well as plays and short stories. She is often described as a polarizing figure for her forthright statements and opinions on all sorts of topics.

Her book Illness as Metaphor, first published as an essay in 1978, was written while she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She explored the language and attitudes used to describe the associated effects of cancer, which she felt reinforced feelings of guilt for being ill.

She died in 2004 of leukemia, survived by a son who published many of her journals posthumously as the book Reborn (2009). A ruminator from adolescence, in addition to her published works, Sontag left copious notes of her daily thoughts, from books she wanted to read to habits she wanted to break.

Her life was often contradictory: being involved in openly lesbian relationships, yet later marrying, then again divorcing and leaving a young child behind.

Her four novels show the softer side of a public intellectual with a rapier sharp wit and tongue. In the days when publishers (and authors) were perhaps more loyal, Farrar, Straus & Giroux released her work: The Benefactor, Death Kit, The Volcano Lover (1992), and In America (1999), which won the National Book Award.

Sontag’s fictional vision is of love lost, won, and fought for, usually set well in the past, rather than the present that figured so prominently in her non-fiction. For instance, a love triangle in the 18th century Sicily is the subject of the bestselling The Volcano Lover.

Born to Jewish American parents, her work is studied throughout the United States as well as unlikely places such as Jerusalem, where she won the Jerusalem Prize in 2001.

Sontag did not conform to one genre, much in the same way that her activism was not only related to her role at the PEN Foundation as an advocate for writers, but extended to AIDS awareness as well as other causes.

She is a formidable example of a writer who lived as she wrote.

 Guest post by Mohana Rajakumar


  • Cariad Martin says:

    ‘On Photography’ was the first academic book I loved, on my degree it was gospel. But I didn’t know anything about her other work really, or personal life. Great post.