Ten years after her death, the question of Susan Sontag’s standing as a critic and novelist remains as vexed as it was in her life, but for more dismaying reasons. In her last decades it seemed, with some exceptions (notably the reflections on images of atrocity in Regarding the Pain of Others), that Sontag had squandered the hard, sleek brilliance of her early criticism in grand inflated verities. But now we’re also asked to accept the relatively trivial point that behind her cosmopolitan élan and erudition, she was, well, not very nice. And worse, that the strenuous literary self-invention, careerist fretting and personal animus on show in her diaries (two volumes of which have appeared since her death) prove nothing less than what her detractors had always claimed: Sontag was a charlatan, gussying banalities in avant-garde togs, shrugging on and off the philosophical or political garb of her intellectual betters.
In fact the diaries, and now this short but instructive biography, prove the opposite, or at least make a more generous case. Above all, Sontag was a writer – with all the longing, doubt, envy and occasional sabotage of her own talent that implies. I can’t be alone in thinking