Was Susan Sontag a good fiction writer? According to the jacket copy for Debriefing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a new collection of her short stories, “Sontag’s work has typically required time for people to catch up to it.” For some, that time has yet to elapse. When in 2014 the New York Times Book Review asked Daniel Mendelsohn and Leslie Jamison to answer the question “Do Critics Make Good Novelists?”, both columnists chose Sontag as their object of analysis, suggesting that Sontag, whose reputation as an essayist is so bright and whose reputation as a fiction writer is so dim, figures for many as the ur-Failed-Critic-Novelist. Jamison was typically sympathetic. The habit among critics of comparing Sontag’s fiction unfavorably with her nonfiction, she argued, points to a “broader accusation that fiction is hobbled by an overactive ‘critical imagination.’” Mendelsohn was typically (delectably) sneering: Of a sentence he cited from Sontag’s novel In America (1999) he wrote, “If I had more space, I’d happily expatiate on what’s wrong with this mortifying passage.”
Even those who have written in defense of Sontag’s fiction, as Jess Row did in Slate in 2005 shortly after the author’s death, have contributed indirectly to the sense that Sontag’s fiction lacks the obvious appeal of her essays. Would one say of an indisputably good story writer that “When scholars write the history of the American short story in the late twentieth century, Susan Sontag will most likely be, at best, a footnote”? So entrenched is the idea that Sontag’s fiction is consignable to the bottom margin that one person interviewed for the 2014 HBO documentary Regarding Susan Sontag felt need to say, of Sontag’s National Book Award win for In America, “Sometimes awards are given in recognition of a career as much as the merits of a particular book.”
Since her death from cancer in 2004, there has been no shortage of efforts to expand (and thus to revise) Sontag’s legacy. We have now two volumes of her journals and notebooks, Reborn (2008) and As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh (2012), both edited by her son, David Rieff; a memoir by the novelist Sigrid Nunez about the year she lived with Sontag, Sempre Susan (2011); and a biography by the German critic Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag (2014). Benjamin Moser, who wrote a life of Clarice Lispector, is at work on an authorized biography. How, if at all, will the publication of Debriefing change the way we view Sontag and, specifically, the way we view her fiction?
Debriefing contains passages that will likely become fodder for those determined to dismiss Sontag’s novels and stories. Pedantic abstractions, overworked sentences, lines of dialogue robbed of force by their tags: Pervasive here is evidence of John Wain’s claim that Sontag wrote a “translator’s English.” But Debriefing also contains enough stirring insights, enough moments of intensity and wit and percipience, to merit a reexamination of Sontag’s fiction. The fact that the strongest stories here are those that read least like stories proper—that, indeed, read like essays—may compel us to reexamine, too, the utility in separating fiction from criticism in the first place.
Debriefing includes eleven stories. Some were previously published in Sontag’s 1978 collection I, etcetera. Others, such as “The Way We Live Now” (probably her most famous story, and probably her best), were published later. All first appeared in magazines such as Partisan Review, The New Yorker, and Harper’s Bazaar. There’s little formal or thematic consistency to this collection: Each story feels like a fresh experiment, another stab (sometimes in the dark) at narrative technique. Nevertheless, the book presents an illuminating record of the ideas that preoccupied Sontag throughout her career: the unbridgeable chasm between virtue and pleasure, the perilousness inherent in Western encounters with the Other, the uses and misuses of influence and power, the indomitability (or not) of the will.
Several stories here are autobiographical. The teenage narrator of “Pilgrimage” describes visiting Thomas Mann at his home in the Pacific Palisades, an event that Sontag recounts in the journals collected in Reborn. Another comprises notes on a planned “overdetermined trip” to China, where the narrator’s (and Sontag’s) father worked as a fur trader and later died. The desultory meditations in “Debriefing” come after the narrator’s friend has thrown herself into the Hudson River, and a few key details suggest she’s based on Sontag’s real-life friend Susan Taubes.
Other entries are more conventionally fictional, and more conventional in their form. “American Spirits” tells the story of Miss Flatface, a “young woman of irreproachable white Protestant ancestry” who leaves her husband and children to go live in a sex den run by the very subtly named Mr. Obscenity. “The Dummy” centers on an office worker who, discovering that he is “tired of being a person,” decides to replace himself with an animatronic clone. Neither of these stories does anything to hide its thesis: “American Spirits” explicates, rather than dramatizes, bourgeoisie sexual panic, just as “The Dummy” explicates, rather than dramatizes, bourgeoisie malaise. As if under the pressure of her intellectual concerns, Sontag’s prose in these narratives becomes wooden. For a story about licentiousness “American Spirits” is oddly desexualized (“Their union took place in a bathtub”), and for a story about the desire to live more ardently “The Dummy” is oddly spiritless (“He, or rather his passion, whose mechanism I cannot fathom, begins to revolt me”).
In her Art of Fiction interview with the Paris Review, Sontag said, “Every impulse to write is born of an idea of form, for me.” Several of the stories in Debriefing, invariably the weakest ones, seem born of an idea not of form but of topic. Benjamin Taylor, in his introduction to Debriefing, writes that “critics have said that Sontag’s stories might as well be personal essays.” It’s in these narratives that the limits of Sontag’s essayistic thinking become apparent.
Essayistic need not mean stiff or overdetermined, especially if one keeps in mind the formal ingenuity, the refreshing haphazardness, of some of Sontag’s most famous essays, particularly “Against Interpretation” and “Notes on ‘Camp.’” One of the most satisfying entries in Debriefing is “Unguided Tour,” in which the narrator records, in what feel like hasty notebook jottings, a trip she takes with an only sometimes-agreeable companion through Europe. “It’s not love that the past needs in order to survive, it’s an absence of choices”; “With an imagination like a pillar of fire. And a heart like a pillar of salt”; “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” Gnomic, provocative, disconnected, such lines call to mind one of the prevailing qualities of Sontag’s writing—namely, that it’s her sentences, not the feelings she evokes, not even her arguments, that one most remembers. She was, in some sense, an aphorist.
There are sentences in Debriefing that rival “In a place of a hermeneutics . . .” in their underlineability. In “Pilgrimage”: “Reading and listening to music: the triumphs of being not myself.” In “Project for a Trip to China”: “No one extraordinary appears to be entirely contemporary. People who are contemporary don’t appear at all: they are invisible.” In “The Letter Scene”: “The lover always sees the beloved as solitary.” In “Old Complaints Revisited”: “The country is amoral. The city is either immoral or moral.” In “Debriefing”: “A thick brownish-yellow substance has settled in everyone’s lungs—it comes from too much smoking, and from history.”
Jess Row wrote in Slate that Sontag’s short fiction “anticipates the evolution of the short story over the last 30 years,” and Benjamin Taylor concurs: “I suspect,” he writes, “that a new generation of readers—less troubled about genre than their elders—will find these stories entirely contemporary.” One can imagine (one can hope, at least) that if Sontag had begun publishing her short stories today she might have found a more receptive audience. Certain of our most prized contemporary works of fiction (the novels of J. M. Coetzee and Rachel Cusk come to mind) can feel, to some degree, essayistic. And it may be that, at this particular point in time, what’s needed most is not craft but intellection. “Project for a Trip to China,” “Unguided Tour,” “Debriefing,” and “The Way We Live Now,” in their meandering, disjointed quality, may indicate Sontag’s failure to concatenate. But they may also indicate that Sontag understood something which most of us now hold to be self-evident: that truth is subjective, scattered, fractured, contingent.
To separate Sontag’s essays from her fiction, and to separate essays from fiction more generally, is to suggest, perhaps to our detriment, that fiction can’t accommodate certain modes of thinking. Sontag seemed alert to this preconception about fiction’s limits when she wrote, in a notebook collected in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, “My subject in all the fiction I’ve written, from The Benefactor on: the fiction of thought. The relation between thinking and power . . . I can’t think of anyone else who has treated this subject fully, as fiction.” But Sontag was aware, too, of the ways in which art can, per Jamison, be “hobbled by an overactive ‘critical imagination.’” In a later entry she wrote, “Intelligence—beyond a certain point—is a liability to the artist. Leonardo da Vinci and Duchamp were too intelligent to be painters. They saw through it . . . And Valéry was too intelligent to be a poet.”
And yet the worst entries in Debriefing are precisely those in which Sontag constrains herself to mere storytelling. The best are those in which she grants herself the full run of her mind. That mind was a writer’s mind—not an essayist’s, not a fiction writer’s—and here it is frequently as jolting, as surprising, as discomforting as ever. “Reason! self-preservation! pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will!” the narrator of “Debriefing” says to her despondent friend. Thought, for Sontag, was a tool for survival. It was also, when necessary, a weapon—against delusion, against conformity, against stupidity, against hate. The narrator of “Pilgrimage,” resentful of her philistine family members, remarks that to read “was to drive a knife into their lives.” For Sontag, to write, whatever the genre, was to twist it.