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SUSAN SONTAG by Carl Rollyson Kirkus Star


The Making of an Icon

by Carl Rollyson & Lisa Paddock

Pub Date: July 17th, 2000
ISBN: 0-393-04928-0
Publisher: Norton

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.