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Susan Sontag on writing

Beautiful (previously unpublished) essay by Susan Sontag copied verbatim from source: (emphases below mine)

Long ago – it was the 18th century – a great and eccentric defender of literature and the English language – it was Doctor Johnson – wrote, in the preface to his Dictionary: “The chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” An unconventional proposition, I suspect, even then. And far more unconventional now, though I think it’s still true. Even at the beginning of the 21st century. Of course, I am speaking of the glory that is permanent, not transitory.

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

And … if you’ll allow me one more: “Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov.”

A great writer of fiction both creates – through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms – a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days … ) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge – albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate – and, therefore, improve – our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

When I say the fiction writer narrates, I mean that the story has a shape: a beginning, a middle (properly called a development), and an end or resolution. Every writer of fiction wants to tell many stories, but we know that we can’t tell all the stories – certainly not simultaneously. We know we must pick one story, well, one central story; we have to be selective. The art of the writer is to find as much as one can in that story, in that sequence … in that time (the timeline of the story), in that space (the concrete geography of the story). “There are so many stories to tell,” muses the alter ego voice in the monologue that opens my last novel, In America. “There are so many stories to tell, it’s hard to say why it’s one rather than another, it must be because with this story you feel you can tell many stories, that there will be a necessity in it; I see I am explaining badly … It has to be something like falling in love. Whatever explains why you chose this story hasn’t explained much. A story, I mean a long story, a novel, is like an around-the-world-in-eightydays: you can barely recall the beginning when it comes to an end.”

A novelist, then, is someone who takes you on a journey. Through space. Through time. A novelist leads the reader over a gap, makes something go where it was not.

There is an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy (as I was once myself), late one night, who had been struggling through Kant’s abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all of this could be put much more simply.

It goes as follows:

“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once … and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

By this standard, the novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and of time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn’t happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn’t happen to one person only.

In other words, a novel is the creation not simply of a voice but of a world. It mimics the essential structures by which we experience ourselves as living in time, and inhabiting a world, and attempting to make sense of our experience. But it does what lives (the lives that are lived) cannot offer, except after they are over. It confers – and withdraws – meaning or sense upon a life. This is possible because narration is possible, because there are norms of narration that are as constitutive of thinking and feeling and experiencing as are, in the Kantian account, the mental categories of space and time.

In other words – and once again – the novel tells a story. I don’t mean only that the story is the content of the novel, which is then deployed or organized into a literary narrative according to various ideas of form. I am arguing that having a story to tell is the chief formal property of a novel; and that the novelist, whatever the complexity of his or her means, is bound by – liberated by – the fundamental logic of storytelling.

The essential scheme of storytelling is linear (even when it is antichronological). It proceeds from a “before” (or: “at first”) to a “during” to a “finally” or “after”. But this is much more than mere causal sequence, just as lived time – which distends with feeling and contracts with the deadening of feeling – is not uniform, clock time. The work of the novelist is to enliven time, as it is to animate space.

The dimension of time is essential for prose fiction, but not, if I may invoke the old idea of the two-party system in literature, for poetry (that is, lyric poetry). Poetry is situated in the present. Poems, even when they tell stories, are not like stories.

One difference lies in the role of metaphor, which, I would argue, is necessary in poetry. Indeed, in my view, it is the task – one of the tasks – of the poet to invent metaphors. One of the fundamental resources of human understanding is what could be called the “pictural” sense, which is secured by comparing one thing with another. Here are some venerable examples, familiar (and plausible) to everyone:

time as river flowing
life as dream
death as sleep
love as illness
life as play/stage
wisdom as light
eyes as stars
book as world
human being as tree
music as food
etc, etc

A great poet is one who refines and elaborates the great historical store of metaphors and adds to our stock of metaphors. Metaphors offer a profound form of understanding, and many – but hardly all – novelists have recourse to metaphor. The grasp of experience through metaphor is not the distinctive understanding that is offered by the great novelists. Virginia Woolf is not a greater novelist than Thomas Bernhard because she uses metaphors and he does not.

The understanding of the novelist is temporal, rather than spatial or pictural. Its medium is a rendered sense of time – time experienced as an arena of struggle or conflict or choice. All stories are about battles, struggles of one kind or another, that terminate in victory and in defeat. Everything moves toward the end, when the outcome will be known.

“The modern” is an idea, a very radical idea, that continues to evolve. We are now in a second phase of the ideology of the modern (which has been given the presumptuous name of “the postmodern”). This beginning of “the modern” in literature took place in the 1850s. A century and a half is a long time. Many of the attitudes and scruples and refusals associated with “the modern” in literature – as well as in the other arts – have begun to seem conventional or even sterile. And, to some extent, this judgment is justified. Every notion of literature, even the most exacting and liberating, can become a form of spiritual complacency or self-congratulation.

Most notions about literature are reactive – in the hands of lesser talents, merely reactive. But what is happening in the repudiations advanced in the current debate about the novel goes far beyond the usual process whereby new talents need to repudiate older ideas of literary excellence.

In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or “user-friendly”) enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.

In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.

The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naive or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist”.

Proclamations about the death of the novel – or in its newer form, the end of books – have, of course, been a staple of the debate about literature for almost a century. But they have recently attained a new virulence and theoretical persuasiveness.

Ever since word-processing programs became common place tools for most writers – including me – there have been those who assert that there is now a brave new future for fiction.

The argument goes as follows.

The novel, as we know it, has come to its end. However, there is no cause for lament. Something better (and more democratic) is going to replace it: the hypernovel, which will be written in the nonlinear or nonsequential space made possible by the computer.

This new model for fiction proposes to liberate the reader from the two mainstays of the traditional novel: linear narrative and the author. The reader, cruelly forced to read one word after another to reach the end of a sentence, one paragraph after another to reach the end of a scene, will rejoice to learn that, according to one account, “true freedom” for the reader is now possible, thanks to the advent of the computer: “freedom from the tyranny of the line “. A hypernovel “has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one “. Instead of following a linear story dictated by the author, the reader can now navigate at will through an “endless expansion of words “.

I think most readers – surely, virtually all readers – will be surprised to learn that structured storytelling, from the most basic beginning-middle- end scheme of traditional tales to more elaborately constructed, nonchronological and multi-voiced narratives, is actually a form of oppression rather than a source of delight.

In fact, what interests most readers about fiction is precisely the story – whether in fairy tales, in murder mysteries, or in the complex narratives of Cervantes and Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen and Proust and Italo Calvino. Story – the idea that events happen in a specific causal order – is both the way we see the world and what interests us most about it. People who read for nothing else will read for plot.

Yet hyperfiction’s advocates maintain that we find plot “confining” and chafe against its limitations. That we resent and long to be liberated from the age-old tyranny of the author, who dictates how the story will turn out, and wish to be truly active readers, who at any moment in reading the text can choose between various alternative continuations or outcomes of the story by rearranging its blocks of text. Hyper fiction is sometimes said to mimic real life, with its myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes, so I suppose it is being touted as a kind of ultimate realism.

To this, I would answer that, while it is true that we expect to organize and make sense of our lives, we do not expect to write other people’s novels for them. And one of the resources we have for helping us to make sense of our lives, and make choices, and propose and accept standards for ourselves, is our experience of singular authoritative voices, not our own, which make up that great body of work that educates the heart and the feelings and teaches us to be in the world, that embodies and defends the glories of language (that is, expands the basic instrument of consciousness): namely, literature.

These proclamations that the book and the novel in particular are ending can’t simply be ascribed to the mischief wreaked by the ideology that has come to dominate departments of literature in many major universities in the United States, Britain and western Europe. The real force behind the argument against literature, against the book, comes, I think, from the hegemony of the narrative model proposed by television.

A novel is not a set of proposals, or a list, or a collection of agendas, or an (open-ended, revisable) itinerary. It is the journey itself – made, experienced and completed.

Completion does not mean that everything has been told. Henry James, as he was coming to the end of writing one of his greatest novels, The Portrait of a Lady, confided to himself in his notebook his worry that his readers would think that the novel was not really finished, that he had “not seen the heroine to the end of her situation”. (As you will remember, James leaves his heroine, the brilliant and idealistic Isabel Archer, resolved not to leave her husband, whom she has discovered to be a mercenary scoundrel, though there is a former suitor, the aptly named Caspar Goodwood, who, still in love with her, hopes she will change her mind.) But, James argued to himself, his novel would be rightly finished on this note. As he wrote: “The whole of anything is never told; you can only take what groups together. What I have done has that unity – it groups together. It is complete in itself.”

We, James’s readers, may wish that Isabel Archer would leave her dreadful husband for happiness with loving, faithful, honorable Caspar Goodwood: I certainly wish she would. But James is telling us she will not.

Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape. Alternatives to the plot ought to be felt up to the last moment. These alternatives constitute the potential for disorder (and therefore of suspense) in the story’s unfolding.

The pleasure of fiction is precisely that it moves to an ending. A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

There is an essential – as I see it – distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have, as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

This parallels the contrasting narrative models proposed by literature and by television.

Literature tells stories. Television gives information.

Literature involves. It is the recreation of human solidarity. Television (with its illusion of immediacy) distances – immures us in our own indifference.

The so-called stories that we are told on television satisfy our appetite for anecdote and offer us mutually canceling models of understanding. (This is reinforced by the practice of punctuating television narratives with advertising.) They implicitly affirm the idea that all information is potentially relevant (or “interesting”), that all stories are endless – or if they do stop, it is not because they have come to an end but, rather, because they have been upstaged by a fresher or more lurid or eccentric story.

By presenting us with a limitless number of nonstopped stories, the narratives that the media relate – the consumption of which has so dramatically cut into the time the educated public once devoted to reading – offer a lesson in amorality and detachment that is antithetical to the one embodied by the enterprise of the novel.

In storytelling as practiced by the novelist, there is always – as I have argued – an ethical component. This ethical component is not the truth, as opposed to the falsity of the chronicle. It is the model of completeness, of felt intensity, of enlightenment supplied by the story, and its resolution – which is the opposite of the model of obtuseness, of non-understanding, of passive dismay, and the consequent numbing of feeling, offered by our mediadisseminated glut of unending stories.

Television gives us, in an extremely debased and un-truthful form, a truth that the novelist is obliged to suppress in the interest of the ethical model of understanding peculiar to the enterprise of fiction: namely, that the characteristic feature of our universe is that many things are happening at the same time. (“Time exists in order that it doesn’t happen all at once … space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”)

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention – a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched. But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding – which is also the understanding of the novelist – to take this in.

Perhaps this is an awareness that comes more easily to poets, who don’t fully believe in storytelling. The supremely great early-20th-century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:

I’ve discovered that I’m always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that … In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.

Yes, everyone is a bit like that … but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking, and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.

Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil, and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, that give joy, it becomes, perennially, a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness. A great deal of narrative, and the speculation that tries to free itself from narrative and become purely abstract, inquires: why does evil exist? Why do people betray and kill each other? Why do the innocent suffer?

But perhaps the problem ought to be rephrased: why is evil not everywhere? More precisely, why is it somewhere – but not everywhere? And what are we to do when it doesn’t befall us? When the pain that is endured is the pain of others?

Hearing the shattering news of the great earthquake that leveled Lisbon on November 1, 1755, and (if historians are to be believed) took with it a whole society’s optimism (but obviously, I don’t believe that any society has only one basic attitude), the great Voltaire was struck by the inability to take in what happened elsewhere. “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”

One might suppose that in the 20th century, in the age of genocide, people would not find it either paradoxical or surprising that one can be so indifferent to what is happening simultaneously, elsewhere. Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? And yet, I venture to assert, we are just as capable of being surprised – and frustrated by the inadequacy of our response – by the simultaneity of wildly contrasting human fates as was Voltaire two and a half centuries ago. Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events – by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That here we are here, now prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening … while elsewhere in the world, right now … in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio …

To be a traveler – and novelists are often travelers – is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very diff erent world you have visited and from which you have returned “home”.

It is a beginning of a response to this painful awareness to say: it’s a question of sympathy … of the limits of the imagination. You can also say that it’s not “natural” to keep remembering that the world is so … extended. That while this is happening, that is also happening.


But that, I would respond, is why we need fiction: to stretch our world.

Novelists, then, perform their necessary ethical task based on their right to a stipulated shrinking of the world as it really is – both in space and in time.

Characters in a novel act within a time that is already complete, where everything worth saving has been preserved – “washed free “, as Henry James puts it in his preface to The Spoils of Poynton, “of awkward accretion” and aimless succession. All real stories are stories of someone’s fate. Characters in a novel have intensely legible fates.

The fate of literature itself is something else. Literature as a story is full of awkward accretions, irrelevant demands, unpurposeful activities, uneconomical attention.

Habent sua fata fabulae, as the Latin phrase goes. Tales, stories, have their own fate. Because they are disseminated, transcribed, misremembered, translated.

Of course, one would not wish it otherwise. The writing of fiction, an activity that is necessarily solitary, has a destination that is necessarily public, communal.

Traditionally, all cultures are local. Culture implies barriers (for example, linguistic), distance, nontranslatability. Whereas what “the modern” means is, above all, the abolition of barriers, of distance; instant access; the leveling of culture – and, by its own inexorable logic the abolition, or revocation, of culture.

What serves “the modern” is standardization, homogenization. (Indeed, “the modern” is homogenization, standardization. The quintessential site of the modern is an airport; and all airports are alike, as all new modern cities, from Seoul to São Paulo, tend to look alike.) This pull toward homogenization cannot fail to affect the project of literature. The novel, which is marked by singularity, can only enter this system of maximum diffusion through the agency of translation, which, however necessary, entails a built-in distortion of what the novel is at the deepest level – which is not the communication of information, or even the telling of engaging stories, but the perpetuation of the project of literature itself, with its invitation to develop the kind of inwardness that resists the modern satieties.

To translate is to pass something across borders. But more and more the lesson of this society, a society that is “modern”, is that there are no borders – which means, of course, no more or less than: no borders for the privileged sectors of society, which are more mobile geographically than ever before in human history. And the lesson of the hegemony of the mass media – television, MTV, the internet – is that there is only one culture, that what lies beyond borders everywhere is – or one day will be – just more of the same, with everyone on the planet feeding at the same trough of standardized entertainments and fantasies of eros and violence manufactured in the United States, Japan, wherever; with everyone enlightened by the same open-ended flow of bits of unfiltered (if, in fact, often censored) information and opinion.

That some pleasure, and some enlightenment, may be derived from these media is not to be denied. But I would argue that the mindset they foster and the appetites they feed are entirely inimical to the writing (production) and reading (consumption) of serious literature.

Every novelist hopes to reach the widest possible audience, to pass as many borders as possible. But it is the novelist’s job to keep in mind the spurious cultural geography that is being installed at the beginning of the 21st century.

On the one hand, we have, through translation and through recycling in the media, the possibility of a greater and greater diffusion of our work. On the other hand, the ideology behind these unprecedented opportunities for diffusion, for translation – the ideology now dominant in what passes for culture in modern societies – is designed to render obsolete the novelist’s prophetic and critical, even subversive, task, and that is to deepen and sometimes, as needed, to oppose the common understandings of our fate.

Long live the novelist’s task.

· At the Same Time by Susan Sontag will be published by Hamish Hamilton on April 5

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