Susan Sontag and the Hetero Presumption

Reviewing the Reviewer

In “A Very Public Intellectual,” ostensibly a review of Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Atlas & Co) in last Sunday’s Wall Street Journal, writer Joseph Epstein aptly observes that “[a]nyone with the least intellectual pretension seemed to have heard of, if not read, her.”

But then, just two sentences later, he jarringly describes Sontag as “the beautiful young woman every male graduate student regretted not having had a tumble with, a fantasy that would have been difficult to arrange since she was, with only an occasional lapse, a lesbian.”

While Epstein is clearly willing to acknowledge the existence of homosexual women, he seems unable to imagine that some of Sontag’s male graduate students might have been homosexual, too. And weren’t there any smitten women in the classroom, or was Sontag the only lesbian?

Epstein’s is the the kind of rhetorical error that editors are supposed to catch—unless they’re too busy pruning florid, overwrought declarations down to journalistic size. Yet somehow the following sentence, purple as any prose I’ve read in newsprint, made the cut: “These cultural pronunciamentos, authoritative and richly allusive, were delivered in a mandarin manner.”

Given Epstein’s meticulous word choices—at least when it comes to alliteration—his remark about “every male graduate student” wanting to sleep with Sontag reads not merely as a rhetorical error, but also as the denial of an entire group of people, people whom Sontag had done so much to make visible in her career-launching 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp.’”

Written five years before the Stonewall Riots and the emergence of a modern gay movement, “Notes on ‘Camp’” was daring enough not only to acknowledge the existence of homosexuals, but to credit them with contributing to popular culture.

Sontag’s own lesbianism was well-known to many of her colleagues, but her partnership with Annie Liebowitz came as a surprise to many of her readers when they learned of it after her death—not so much because Sontag was in the closet as because of what fellow academicians like Judith Butler termed “the heterosexual presumption.”

Ironically, in reviewing a work about Sontag’s life, Epstein has reinscribed the very presumption that Sontag herself had challenged throughout her career.

None of us are blank slates; we all come to the books we read with certain biases and presumptions already in place, but being aware of these can help us become more objective and engaged readers (and reviewers). Here’s hoping that others will approach Nunez’ wonderful biography—or at least “Notes on ‘Camp’”—with this in mind.
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