Philip Lopate‘s Notes on Sontag is one of the best works I’ve read on a literary figure. Short though muscular in its contentions, Lopate introduces us to Susan Sontag: critic/novelist/bette noir and, above all, a woman trying not to be defined as any of these things. There’s a deep ambivalence toward Sontag here, a clear belief that she was important and her work powerful, coupled with the nagging suspicion that her work might not really matter much any more; an artifact from a pre-post-modern world (Yes, I’m going to stand by that odd circumlocution).

At her best, she spoke to the 1960s, created a new language for her era. Though even here Lopate’s praise is undramatic:

“She was consistently able to diagnose the moment and prophesize the immediate future–which goes some way toward explaining her relevance as a public intellectual.” (26)

At her worst, she was blinded by ideology. Or a novelist; in the words of that great critic, Crash Davis:

Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.

(That JFK argues for an alternate Kennedy scenario is here meaningless. It’s not as if there’s some Tommy Westphall Hypothesis for Kevin Costner movies)

Lopate, too, minimizes Sontag’s fiction career. If anything, he implicitly argues, her success with The Volcano Lover and In America reveals a problematic distancing from her critical writing championing the avant garde. Her only successes are in the realist tradition she so maligned (and that Lopate champions).

As he himself has admitted, Notes on Sontag is more a defense of the essay as form than a defense of Sontag (though there’s plenty of that too). It’s a tremendous work, an excellent start to Princeton University Press’ new Writers on Writers series.   Read the rest of this entry »

A long while back, about one third a diggety-years ago, I was talking to dailysalad about how some of our classmates from high school were fairing.  He mentioned that one of our old chums, who had a knack for fiction, was learning all kinds cutting-edge techniques at his new university, one of which was hypertexted-fiction, which is just as it sounds — fiction shot through with hypertext links.  Dailysalad thought that it was a neat conceit.  I was a little less enthusiastic, as I’m a sucker for narrative flow, and in a pre-Kindle era, the idea of a novel that you *had* to read on a computer just didn’t seem appealing.

Although I don’t think that the hypertexted novel ever took off, the format of prose shot through with hypertext has.  Most blog postings reference other blog postings, or news stories (this is true of most posts which build traffic), and to truly *read* a blog posting, the reader has to slog through a bevy of links.  While this is a useful method of orienting the reader, it interrupts the flow of reading, and as quite a bit of recent psychological research has shown, once distracted from a task, it takes people quite a bit of time to reestablish their focus.

One could reasonably argue that although the technology of hypertexting is new, the function of hypertexting is not.  The lowly footnote has long existed to provide reference and context to the unfamiliar reader, whether they are digesting a scholarly article, or attempting to read Nabokov without a ready command of French, Russian, and the collected works of Prosper Mérimée.  However, in much good literature and scholarly writing, footnotes enhance our appreciation of a piece, rather than being essential to understanding it.

So to get back to what I was saying before, what I says to dailysalad, I says, “maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea to have a lot of hypertexts in our posts.  I figure that it might be nice if people see the posts more as essays, rather than as just blog postings.   You know, it could fit in that “slow movement” trend I keep hearing about these days.”  To which dailysalad said, “hmm.  Locavore, slow food trends, slow transport trends… sounds good.   Why don’t you write a piece on it?”*

*Note: This conversation did not actually happen.