[DIARY OF A MEMOIRIST] Regarding Susan Sontag
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
April 2014
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
April 2014

Saturday night I watched the showing of Nancy Kates’s marvelous documentary about Susan Sontag at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was lucky enough to belong to the board of advisors for the film, and that brought me to a reception before it was shown. A few of us (including Terry Castle, from her essay on “Notes on Camp,” and Nancy Kates herself, from “The Conscience of Words”) read something from or about Sontag. (Tip: never read after Terry Castle.) I excerpted a piece I published in PMLA in 2005, in a collection of short essays following her death:

Elaine Showalter describes reading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It in graduate school, impressed by his account of the Dark Lady, the “only famous woman of Letters in New York.” Mary McCarthy had “originated the role,” Showalter goes on to explain, quoting Podhoretz, “but by the 1960s no longer occupied it, having recently been promoted to the more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her long years of service.” Showalter confessed that she was fascinated by the information: “How did you get to be a Dark Lady? Where in New York could you go to try out? Most important, how old was Susan Sontag?” And in one of those anecdotes too predictably bitchy to be true, McCarthy went up to Sontag at a party and said dismissively, “You’re the imitation me.”

From many angles, the film ponders the answer to the question: How do you get to be a Dark Lady?

Or, how did Susan Rosenblatt become Susan Sontag? How did she go from Sue in her high school yearbook photo to the stunning, much photographed, female figure familiar to readers around the world.

It helps to be brilliant, it helps to be gorgeous, it helps to be photogenic. Yes. But the film wonderfully shows as it illuminates various aspects of Sontag’s biography, intellectual and intimate, literary and sexual, that the mysterious mix creates the icon.

Even so, a darker question than the “how to” lurks in Showalter’s question: Why should this phenomenon occur so rarely among the tiny number of women writers and intellectuals? Perhaps we each could propose a favorite candidate, but the economy of scarcity guarantees that consensus is unlikely.

As Carolyn Heilbrun lamented in 1967, after interviewing Sontag, and conjuring up other comparable legendary female figures—Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, the younger Mary McCarthy—“How short the world is of famous, intelligent women: one per country per generation.”

While you are waiting, go see the film!

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  • Hi, Nancy. You never did explain what you meant by re sentiment.

  • Thanks for the provocative post, Nancy. The core of the issue seems to be the question of whom Society believes is entitled to recognition, acclaim, adulation, and generous compensation for their brilliant output. Maybe the ultimate question is, "Who is deemed worthy of the spotlight?" So often the answer is dictated according to gender, ethnicity, age, social class and/or other arbitrary criteria that are totally unrelated to the quality of a person's scholarship, performance or productivity. My hope is that within my lifetime excellence in all endeavors will be judged by the merits of superior concept, development, execution, effectiveness, contributions and longevity of positive impact rather than distorted gendered notions.

  • To be clear, it's not either or, Stein or Sontag. (And congratulations on your Stein biography, Renate.) It's all of them, the plurality of us.

    By the way, Nancy, your memoir sounds fascinating.

  • Force, not firce. Although typos invent sone pretty good words. Firce sounds fiercer.

  • We are struggling with typos today! Do you mean resentment or re-sentiment?

    And with regard to whom do you mean it?

    I would suggest that most icons in lit arrive there because they need to hide behind the icon--the white suit, the glamour.

    I think we should all focus on the writer's writing and stop fussing their iconography. Icons were, literally, religious images that could not be presented any other way. Change even a hint of style and the artist was tortured to death.

    When we hear people trying to firce any of us into that limited frame, we need to speak up. And in this era of necessary self-promotion,that also means calling another's attention to a slip up.

    Write about sontag's need to reinvent herself, about her art, about her life. It's clear you would have insight, perhaps personal insight, into all of the above. But don't let your posts become part of the same crippling legend-making.

    Hey, let's talk about Ann Petrie for awhile, an icon-buster if ever there was one. Has anybody read The Street? That woman could write.

  • Renate Stendhal

    Play it like a man, Sam! No glamor, no Lady in good old butch Stein :)

  • Nancy K. Miller

    oops, iconization...

    And ressentiment is not an attractive quality in any writer....

  • Nancy K. Miller

    And Gertrude Stein didn't glamorize herself??????

    Do you not recall why she wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas--etc. etc.


    The question isn't whether there haven't been many extremely talented, even brilliant women writers---

    nor whether the women participate in their ionization, the issue is how and why certain figures emerge as iconic--that includes Steinem.

  • Renate Stendhal

    I completely agree with Sara: glamor is fabricated, most stars participate heavily in their own mystification, and Susan Sontag surely did. There was nothing, however, of a Dark Lady in Gertrude Stein who openly took on the partriarchal hierarchies of glamor: "I am the literary Einstein of the century." "I am a genius." How far ahead she was -- and still is.

  • And can't edit--to stop glamorizing the glamorizers.

  • I see dame west is in there twice, so let's make the second one Jessamyn West.

  • How to become a dark lady? I guess you spend money and time persuading the press, the literary establishment and board members of film committees that there is only one legendary Phoenix and you is it.

    Honestly, do you really want to state this so baldly? To ignore Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber and Ozick and Erica Jong and Zora Neale Hurston and Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison and Ann Petry and Dame Rebecca West and Dame Rebecca West and Enid Bagnold and de Bouvoir and Steinam and Le Guin and Atwood and toss then under the press wagon, because they don't fit some romantic Dark Lady notion?

    The real question isn't how to be her, or how to create eight of her, but how to deconstruct the legend so that literary women can have jowls and dark circles and just damned well write brilliantly--and be recognized as brilliant people, without having to be Glamerous or play themselves off against other women.

    One step would be to stop glamorizing the glamorizes. Sigh.