reading Sontag

Susan Sontag was a remarkable woman. I’ve long admired her writing, be it prose or her critical work.

So, I was interested when I noticed that The Guardian published recently an essay of hers from just before her death in 2004. Writers will find it an illuminating read. It is stuffed full of practical advice, as well as being an incisive discourse on the nature of narrative with some thoughts about its evolution. I’m at a loss as to what to quote, although this early paragraph is excellent:

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.”

In her essay Sontag examines the notion that modern technology and new hypertextual frameworks renders the classic model of the novel obsolete. She dismisses this in a careful analysis of the nature of human experience, and how the novel answers a desire for readers to embark upon a journey that completes–although, how the story is crafted and concluded should imply a greater life outside of the novel.

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.

Aristotle‘s famous quote from Poetics that “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end,” has yet to be disabused, (although the filmmaker Godard suggested the order is not fixed) and that is the structure that the majority of people find satisfying. Sontag goes on to comment:

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.

It is this proliferation, and scattering of stories in today’s media that Sontag considers problematic. She appears to worry that the transmission of stories via media that are ideologically opposed to older traditions of narrative subverts the message. It’s an interesting concern weighed against the value of unprecedented access to information that is available to the majority of people. It’s not a philosophical point I’d considered before – I’m very much an adherent of harnessing new technologies for the benefits of storytelling. Sontag summaries her worry, and ends her essay thus:

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.

My understanding of her last caution is to ensure that the messenger does not supersede, or sabotage, the message.

Perhaps by my blogging of the original text, and by excising sections to highlight what interested me in the essay, I have already committed the crime about which Sontag warned.

Maybe parts of this entry will be selected, cut and pasted into other journals, until only an inaudible echo of Sontag’s prose remains.

I like to think that people who are interested will read her essay in full. Or buy the published version, At the Same Time, which arrives in bookshops, printed and bound in the conventional way, in Ireland and the UK on April 5th.