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Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon

Whereas earlier studies of Sontag--Sohnya Sayres's Susan Sontag: The Elegiac Modernist (CH, Jan'91) and Liam Kennedy's Susan Sontag: Mind as Passion (CH, Mar'96)--have focused strictly on the body of Sontag's work, the current volume sets that work in the rich context of Sontag's life. Because this first biography of Sontag was written without her cooperation or approval, one might expect the authors to be more antagonistic toward their subject than they are. Rollyson and Paddock do give Sontag's adversaries--e.g., Camille Paglia--ample space in which to air their views, but the authors also give generous space to Sontag's supporters. In general, the book does a good job of summarizing both the background of and critical response to Sontag's books, essays, and films and her shifting politics, lesbianism, and "iconic" status--i.e., the image she projects of the avant-garde, cosmopolitan, glamorous, sexy, mysterious intellectual, an image that Sontag seems simultaneously to cultivate and to reject. Though Sontag's few, brief autobiographical essays are extremely good, she may never write a book-length autobiography. But even if she does, this engaging, well-written book will maintain a central position in the secondary literature on one of the major US writers of the second half of the 20th century. All collections.--CHOICE

Known variously (and with varying degrees of kindness) as "the Beatnik Boadicea," "the Paganini of criticism " and "the most curious person alive," Susan Sontag--critic, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, public intellectual--has consistently provoked awe, distrust, veneration and fear as one of the most perceptive, talented and controversial of American writers and thinkers. Although she has occupied a central place in the twin worlds of literary and popular culture since her influential first essays appeared in the Partisan Review in the early 1960s, this is the first full-length biography and one of the few critical studies of the author and her work. Rollyson and Paddock have unearthed a deluge of information on Sontag's personal life--on her early years and family life, her lesbianism (which she has only recently publicly acknowledged), her relationship with son David Rieff and her battles with breast cancer. While the authors provide an intelligent, though not strikingly original, analysis of her work, they are best at detailing how Sontag and her publishers have marketed her image as much as her thought. Often the book has a casual feel that undercuts its seriousness, and Rollyson and Paddock frequently seem willing to quote anyone who will criticize Sontag (Camille Paglia's remarks come off as petty and self-promoting). Yet in the end, this is a respectful, informed first look at an important writer's life.--Publishes Weekly (July)

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