The question to ask of any biographer is: What story is he telling? And ask: Is he telling it well? And: What kind of biography is it? For example, by titling our biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon,my wife, Lisa Paddock, and I signaled that this first biography of our subject would focus on how she and others built her career and public image. Our bedrock source was Sontag’s publisher's archive at the New York Public Library. Access to that collection made the kind of biography we wanted to write possible. Of course, we asked Sontag for an interview (we were denied), and we interviewed several people close to her—although plenty of others rejected our requests to speak with them. As the first biographers of Sontag, we had enough material. Of course, later biographers will have a treasure trove of material we could not consult. But they will not have interacted with those we interviewed who have since died. Biography is a trade-off.
I also don’t think there is anything wrong with overcorrection in biography, the use of praise or blame to shake up our views of a particular subject. Call this the thesis biography, or a biography predicated on a theme—for example, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. We announced our focus in the title, and I don’t see a problem there. Someday there will be quite another kind of biography written about Sontag, and that’s fine with me.
Several years ago a literary critic pointed out that whatever is said in a book review leaves much unsaid. There is just no way for the critic to say that for every argument she or he makes, a counter argument can also be made. Susan Sontag was a master at this sort of argumentation, often refuting her own positions—most notably her views on Leni Riefenstahl. In "Against Interpretation," she praises Triumph of the Will as a beautiful work of art. Sontag argues that not to appreciate the film's formal structure because its content is vile is to deny there is an aesthetic beyond evil and tyranny. Nearly ten years later, in “Fascinating Fascism,” by then appalled at the way Riefenstahl had been rehabilitated as an artist and even as a figure the women’s movement was celebrating, Sontag contended that a fascist aesthetic, a worship of the beautiful and powerful to the exclusion of everything else, permeated Riefenstahl’s career from first to last.
Susan Sontag wanted to become a writer after empathizing with Jack London’s writer-hero Martin Eden, who takes his own life, and that Cicily Fairfield took the name of the feminist Rebecca West, who kills herself in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. In both cases, young enthusiasts with illusions of grandeur identify with what their heroes dare to do and not what these idols do to themselves.
All of my subjects are cynosures—albeit, in the case of Dana Andrews, a reluctant one who did not want to be forever wearing that trench coat and fedora gazing wistfully at Laura's portrait. Even someone as austere and simply dressed as Marie Curie became a pinup for my sixth subject, Susan Sontag, who modeled her own affectation about not having a career or concern for fame on Curie’s genuine distaste for the limelight
Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon
An engagingly gossipy biography of the most glamorous intellectual celebrity of our time, assessing the impact of the writer's persona more thoroughly than her literary creations. Rollyson (Rebecca West, 1996, etc.) and Paddock skim quickly over Sontag's childhood, pausing only to note her precocious habit of reading through an author's entire oeuvre (beginning with the dog stories of Alfred Payson Terhune), and to quote various high-school classmates' and teachers' tributes to her beauty and brilliance. The authors hit their stride when Sontag "set off to conquer literary New York," allowing them to expound on her growing mystique and her complicated interactions with the reigning intelligentsia. A lively review of the literary and political fads of the 1960s and 1970s follows, tracing Sontag's path through the era of "radical chic." Although the discussions of the content of her writings run more to summary than analysis, offering facile interpretations, the authors vividly evoke the social context inspiring each piece and its reception in the media and the larger culture, offering some highly entertaining if not stunningly original social history along the way. They handle the major events in Sontag's personal life—both those that were highly publicized (such as her treatment for cancer in 1975) and those she has kept more or less private (such as her love affairs)—with equal zest and superficiality. Despite the fascinating gossip, Sontag's own character never emerges; she's observed from the outside. This distance from the subject may be deliberate, since as the title suggests, the authors treat Sontag as an icon or a social construction rather than an individual—and with good reason, considering her continual reinventions of herself and her positions to fit the changing times. However, they dilute their critical approach with frequent unblushing tributes to Sontag's charisma and genius. The biography proudly asserts its unauthorized status, but its authors never tire of celebrating Sontag's "irresistible sexuality, intelligence, and openness," her "combination of sexiness and braininess," her "hip, sexy, and somehow fashionable aura." Although light on both literary and psychological substance, this biography, like Sontag herself, has plenty of charm.-- Kirkus Reviews
"From reading Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock’s biography Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, one gets a sense of how carefully and relentlessly she was promoted, especially by her publisher, Roger Straus."--Joseph Epstein, The Hedgehog Review
"harsh but richly reported . . ." --New York Magazine
AMAZON READERS DISAGREE:
This is a bad book. The two authors, who between them have about 1/100th of Sontag's intelligence, integrity, and imagination, written in the most pedestrian prose possible, set about to undo her reputation.
Each time they credit her with something, within the next sentence or two they somehow take it back, or cast doubt on it. Only her battles with cancer are described with anything like sympathy.
Apparently it is beyond them that a woman, and a beautiful woman at that, could produce some of the most important essays of our time. That she has changed her position on some issues is treated as some sort of betrayal, hypocracy, or attempts to jump on a particular bandwagon. Perhaps, like the intelligent woman she is, she re-thought some of her earlier positions.
Why they wrote this book is beyond me.--A customer
I enjoyed this book, and found that it was well written. Having just finished it, let me advise the potential reader that this book is slanted, and, for sure, Susan Sontag was not an individual to get warm and fuzzy with. Reading about her and her partner in her later life, Annie Leibowitz, I realized one thing: these two must have been the most insufferable lesbian couple ever. Both were so convinced of their own superiority, and both demanded that the world cow-tow to them for their specialness. Also, Sontag's son, who went on to edit his mother's work, also had the same sense of entitlement. For example, it is revealed that Susan's publisher, Robert Giroux, and her son would hound reviewers who were critical of her work. She seemed to believe she shouldn't have to suffer the same slings and arrows any other author would be subject to.
What I found most fascinating, and truly the strongest part of this book, were the stories revolving around various people in Susan Sontag's life. A much loved phrase of hers was "acquirement and disburdenment," which describes her pattern of dealing with people over the years. Four friends/fellow artists are revealed in some depth: fellow writers, Arthur Chesler and Camille Paglia, photographer, Peter Huyar, and box collage artist, Joseph Cornell. These were the most interesting people in the book, and these same people Ms. Sontag "acquired and disburdened." I was left wanting to know more about them, and this presents a problem when the peripheral characters prove more interesting than the subject of this book.-- Siouxie, The Bronx
The flash is the brilliant Sontag herself--her quicksilver mind, her style; and the trash is this book and the modus operandi of these authors.--A customer
We can't comment on the accuracy of a biography with any degree of certainty unless we've done research ourselves or unless we have several top rated biographies to compare with.
There are no great biographies of Susan Sontag and few of us know her life well, from our personal experience! I believe this book is the best we have.
I'm sorry to say that I have never cared for Susan Sontag's literary work or for her literary criticism and my belief is that neither will survive her death. We shouldn't be surprised at this: Historically, the reputation of writers who have been famous in their own time has very often died along with them.
Hundreds of famous writers from the past, such as Monk Lewis, Anne Radcliffe and Edgar Wallace were as well known as Stephen King, Tom Clancy and J.K. Rawlings today but are unknown to all but a few specialists now, while many, many great writers such as Stendhal, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson died in obscurity but are among the greatest writers we have.
Even if this biography paints Susan Sontag in a less favorable light than is justified, I think it remains an object lesson for what writers and other creative people should NOT do, which is to try to become rich and famous bringing wisdom and intelligence to the human race: Almost all the world's great religions and philosophies tell us that truth tellers are more often reviled in their own time than revered and that the crowd more often hoists onto its shoulders those who flatter it than those who tell it the truth. We know what happens to most of the truth tellers.--James Street
This is a book equal to its subject. Few intellectuals are as interesting as Susan Sontag, and the authors are fair and balanced in their presentation of the facts and controversies that make up the life of Sontag. The authors point to many facts that can only engender admiration of Sontag. For example, her fierce independence-- forsaking the safety of academic appointments to enhance her freedom to write on her own terms. Sontag's refusal to be labelled a "woman writer" or "lesbian writer" is a rejection of the simplistic logic of the "identity" crowd now so dominant in the academy. There is much to criticise in the life of Sontag (e.g., her fatuous enbrace of Hanoi) but far more to admire and emulate. Both authors and subject are better off for this book.
--Dennis M. Patterson
Always an admirer of Ms. Sontag's work, but admitting all the time I probably didn't know half of what she talked about, this book made me realize I bought into the Role, the Persona of Sontag. My admiration of her was a guilty pleasure, an enjoyment of the image. What she did do however was make me pursue the writers, the works of art she mentioned and gave those people and objects a validity that insured me of their importance even if I didn't understand what that importance was. I cannot image how these two writers managed to write this book. Their research material must be overwhelming. It is a rivieting mesmerizing account I am greatly enjoying. One major omission: no mention of her siblings. What happened there?--A customer
Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock have done an admirable job. It's hard to imagine a more delicious account of how a bright, imaginative girl from North Hollywood High manufactured and marketed herself as an international literary icon. To get at the truth, the authors have stripped off the gilt and the result is a startling portrait that is sure to generate controversy. This is a biography that is hard to put down.--Marion Mead