Today marks the birthday of the late Susan Sontag, the badass, whip-smart essayist, novelist and critic, who changed the landscape of cultural criticism for women. Sontag passed away in 2004, but her memory lives on. Whether you’re a long-time Sontag reader, or a newer fan (thank you, HBO, for the recent doc, Regarding Susan Sontag), to know her is to be utterly fascinated by her. For those who still need a little more information on what makes Sontag’s legacy so compelling, here’s a brief primer on who she was and why she matters so much.
Sontag was a feminist role model, who often wrote about principles of gender equality. When The Paris Review asked her if she though of herself as a feminist, she replied, “That’s one of the few labels I’m content with.”
She was incredibly prolific. She wrote six novels, four plays, six collections of nonfiction, and even directed four films, as well as a vast collection of essays and articles for publications like The New York Review of Books. In 2000, she won the National Book Award for her novel In America.
She wasn’t afraid to go to bat on feminist issues. In the early ’70s tangled on-camera with Norman Mailer about using the patronizing term “lady writer” for female authors.
She served as a muse for her her longtime partner, photographer Annie Leibovitz. The couple were together until Sontag’s death in 2004. After she passed away, Leibowitz paid homage to the author through a series of intimate photos of their lives together, many of which would appear in Leibowitz’ “A Photographer’s Life: 1990-2005,” a book she called “my most important work.”
She was a staunch supporter of fellow authors in times of crisis. In 1989, when Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (death sentence) against Salman Rushdie after publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, Sontag was serving as the President of literary organization PEN America, and rallied an enormous amount of support for Rushdie among writers.
She used performance as a means of activism. During the Siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian war, Sontag lived in Sarajevo and put on a candelit production of the Samuel Beckett play Waiting for Godot.
Godot Sarajevo from Ismet Arnautalic on Vimeo.She was a young prodigy. Sontag graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18. One of her good friends at college was The Graduate director Mike Nichols.
She collaborated with her son. Sontag’s son, David Rieff, also served as the editor for several of the books she published at FSG.
She was a bank of creative wisdom. Sontag on writing: “A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.”
She defied expectations. Though Sontag was regarded as a serious intellectual, who wrote long, fluent essays on thorny philosophical queries, she also had a soft, quirky side. Like when she wore this bear suit, and was snapped in it by Annie Leibovitz:
There’s so much more to Sontag’s legacy and Regarding Susan Sontag will delve deeper into her work, her personal choices, and her life as a critical observer of culture and humanity. Check out the trailer for the film and be enthralled: