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Robert Minto on Benjamin Moser and Susan Sontag

Benjamin Moser’s official biography of Susan Sontag has been stirring up a lot of impassioned responses lately. One of the most thoroughly considered, asking the most pointed questions about both the subject and the aims of the biography, comes from Robert Minto in a new essay at the Los Angeles Review of Books:

What it all boils down to, for Moser, is that Sontag was a solipsist. One of his favorite, oft-repeated, pieces of evidence for this essential solipsism is the fact that Sontag’s journals are mostly about herself: “In her journals, she was unsparing with herself — but the focus was always on herself.” (Upon whom do Moser’s journals focus, one has to wonder?) This supposed solipsism resulted in an inability to empathize, which expressed itself in her personal relationships as well as in her inability to follow metaphors and know her own feelings about art.

Despite my dislike for the tenor of the biography, it is difficult to come away from these 700 pages without feeling that Sontag is, indeed, diminished by them. Moser’s prosecution is more or less successful. What he says about Sontag’s essays is also true of his case against her: “[E]xample is piled upon example, quote upon quote, making it difficult for the reader to reach any conclusion other than” his own. Even great admirers of Sontag’s writings, like myself, will find their feelings toward the author grow complicated. To that degree, the book does what a biography ought to do: it enriches our understanding of its subject. But the book is also a great disappointment. Not primarily because of the prosecutorial negativity I have described — after all, many great literary biographies are full of prosecutorial negativity — but because the author evidently became so absorbed in the task of unmasking Sontag that he failed to take the opportunity of access to Sontag’s archives and acquaintances to shed light on the reason that I, at least, care to read a biography of Susan Sontag at all: her work. …

It’s not that Moser ignores Sontag’s writings. On the contrary, he summarizes and delivers his opinion on most of them. There is a reasonably interesting critical essay on Sontag’s texts interlarded among the meticulous scandalmongering. But what is missing is the very thing one looks for in the biography of a thinker or writer: not literary criticism, but the point of connection between the body of texts for which the subject is known and their life as a real, physical, historical person. That point of connection is labor, and the biographer touches it by describing how a person worked.