Paglia v. Sontag: the Literary Rivalry that Began at Bennington
Nancy Crampton’s iconic portrait of Susan Sontag from the 1970s
On October 3, 1973, Susan Sontag traveled to Bennington from New York City to deliver what the Literature and Languages faculty thought would be a lecture. Sontag had been invited by Camille Paglia, then a young faculty member, who had traveled to Middlebury in a spring snowstorm to personally lobby Sontag to visit Bennington for half of her usual speaker’s fee. It worked, and Sontag came to campus to much fanfare–after the main event, Sontag was to be fêted by Bernard Malmud, Stephen Sandy, Nicholas Delbanco, Paglia, and other local luminaries. Though the evening didn’t go as planned.
Paglia’s essay on the disappointing encounter and its aftermath, “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” was published in her 1994 collection Vamps & Tramps. We dug in the archives to revisit the main event, and we asked Benjamin Moser, who is currently writing the authorized biography of Sontag, to fill in the gaps for us in this Q&A.
Moser is also the author of Why This World: a Biography of Clarice Lispector and the series editor of the new translations of Lispector’s work published in the U.S. by New Directions. His biography of Sontag is expected in 2017 or 2018.
Literary Bennington: In her essay about the whole ‘Susan Sontag Affair,’ “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” Camille Paglia claims that Against Interpretation (1967) marks the “high point” of Sontag’s reputation. Is this a widely held opinion?
Benjamin Moser: I don’t think so. A decade later, for example, she published On Photography, which Paglia thinks is a weaker book (I disagree, and so do a lot of other people). And as for reputation: Sontag’s reputation only grew in coming decade. There is a debate as to how much of this was reputation in the sense of celebrity and how much was reputation in the literary or artistic sense. My own opinion is that those things are less separable than they may seem – and that if anyone understands that it is Camille Paglia.
LB: Paglia gives a lot of attention to Sontag’s personal style: her boots, the fact that she wore pants, the hand-knit sweaters and long scarves. Was Sontag as interested in fashion as Paglia seems to be?
BM: No. In fact, though in some ways she was extremely image-conscious, Sontag had often strange indifference to the way in which she was perceived. She occasionally affected certain looks, but she just as often could show up at TV interviews looking, as one friend of hers said, like the Wreck of the Medusa. That’s why I think that the emphasis on this side of her is misplaced.
Paglia’s signature on a document in Bennington’s archive
LB: Sontag’s visit to Bennington on October 4, 1973 was a legendary disaster. Sontag arrived two hours late, she read a short story that bored everyone to tears instead of giving the lecture that everyone expected, she was a difficult guest. Was this typical of her public appearances at the time, or is Paglia exaggerating?
BM: I think that if you read through the lines of the piece, it sounds more like a boring lecture that disappointed people than a legendary disaster. People very often expected far more of Sontag than she was able to provide, and the clash between these expectations and the reality of the actual person was often memorable. It seems, from Paglia’s descriptions, that Sontag was simply tired, and that the story she read was boring. It also appears that Sontag was very nice to Paglia personally – and don’t forget that Bernard Malamud seems to have gone out of his way to insult her.
LB: Do you have any guesses about which short story Sontag might have read that night? What do you think of her short stories?
BM: I don’t know, but it was probably one of the stories that were later published in I, etcetera. There is a cliché that Sontag was a great essayist and a terrible writer of fiction. In fact, some of her essays are terrible and some of her stories are wonderful. Like anyone else, she was a mixed bag – but her insistence that she thought of herself primarily as a writer of fiction, combined with some memorable bricks, made this an easy accusation for people to level.
An article from Bennington’s The New Paper in 1977 about Paglia’s call for the College to offer art history as a major when she was on the faculty
LB: In Paglia’s essay she characterizes herself as ‘Pugnacious Paglia’ and she calls Sontag ‘Silent Sontag.’ Does this say anything about the two of them as public intellectuals?
BM: Sontag was certainly pugnacious at times, and Paglia has often been silent herself, coming and going from the public arena. I think that there is a very big generational difference. In Sontag’s generation, certain writers and intellectuals were expected to play a role in politics and society that was later subsumed into a general scramble for media attention and self-promotion. But when this whole Susan-Paglia scandal erupted in the nineties, Susan did indeed stay silent. Camille told me that she conceived of it as a kind of performance art, and Susan chose not to participate in someone else’s artwork.
Paglia’s best-selling book of cultural criticism Sexual Personae (1990)
LB: Have you come across any evidence while researching your biography of Sontag that she actually read Paglia’s best-seller Sexual Personae?
BM: No, I haven’t. t wouldn’t surprise me if she had, though, because she read so much. If she had, and if she had liked it, I am sure that this whole incident would have transpired in a very different way.
LB: Do you have an opinion about Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover? How would you rate her talent for fiction?
BM: I love The Volcano Lover, by far her best novel. Her talent for fiction was surely lesser than her desire to have talent for fiction, which she had decided as a girl was the highest form of literary art. She was not a natural artist and she was well aware – painfully aware – of that. But her desire to be better than she was propelled her to produce some extremely admirable writing in all sorts of genres, and The Volcano Lover is surely among them.