Susan Sontag, Writer and Critic, Dies at 71
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Author and social critic Susan Sontag, one of the most powerful thinkers of her generation and a leading voice of intellectual opposition to U.S. policy after the Sept. 11 attacks, died on Tuesday at a New York cancer hospital. She was 71.
Sontag, who had been suffering from cancer for some time, was known for interests that ranged from French existentialist writers to ballet, photography and politics. She once said a writer should be “someone who is interested in everything.”
She was a lifelong human rights activist and the author of 17 books, including a novel, “In America,” that won a U.S. National Book award.
Her work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Among her best known works was a 1964 study of homosexual aesthetics called “Notes on Camp.”
Fellow author and friend Salman Rushdie described her as “a great literary artist, a fearless and original thinker, ever valiant for truth” who insisted “that with literary talent came an obligation to speak out on the great issues of the day.”
Sontag was among the first to raise a dissenting voice after Sept. 11, 2001, in a controversial New Yorker magazine essay arguing that talk of an “attack on civilization” was “drivel.”
A tall and imposing figure with white-streaked, long black hair and a severe demeanor, Sontag was a fixture on the New York intellectual scene. She played herself in Woody Allen’s 1983 comedy “Zelig,” and directed four films of her own.
She ignited a firestorm of criticism when she declared that the Sept. 11 attacks were not a “cowardly attack” on civilization but “an act undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions.”
With much of America still too shocked to consider such views, she was vilified in some quarters. An op-ed piece in the Boston Globe contended the comments confirmed what many already thought about her: “high IQ, but a few quarts low on compassion and common sense.”
Sontag has since been an outspoken critic of President Bush over his response to the Sept. 11 attacks and particularly the U.S. war in Iraq.
In May this year she wrote an essay in the New York Times about the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, arguing that the shocking photographs of the abuse would likely becoming the defining images of the war.
The piece prompted an editorial writer at Britain’s Financial Times newspaper to describe her as “the liberal lioness … the pride of hand-wringing elitist liberalism.”
Novelist E.L. Doctorow described her as “quite fearless.”
“She was engaged as a writer. I remember she went to Sarajevo to do theater while the fighting was going on. She just marched right on in there,” he said.
Born in New York in 1933, Sontag grew up in Arizona and Los Angeles before going to the University of Chicago, and later Harvard and Oxford. She wrote novels, non-fiction books, plays and film-scripts as well as essays for The New Yorker, Granta, the New York Review of Books and other literary titles.
“She was brilliant and put her brilliance to work on behalf of human rights and creativity for everybody else,” said Victor Navasky, publisher of liberal weekly magazine The Nation.
Sontag was married at the age of 17 to Philip Rieff, an academic in Chicago, with whom she had a son in 1952.
A longtime opponent of war and a human rights activist, Sontag made several visits to Sarajevo and staged Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” there under siege in the summer of 1993.
From 1987 to 1989 she was president of the American Center of PEN, an international writers’ organization dedicated to freedom of expression, where she led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.
Rushdie, current PEN president, expressed his gratitude for her support over the fatwa issued against him in 1989 for his book “The Satanic Verses.” “Her resolute support, at a time when some wavered, helped to turn the tide against what she called ‘an act of terrorism against the life of the mind.”‘