I don’t know whether or not Susan Sontag ever saw “The Wire.” She died in 2004, so it’s possible that she saw an early season or two, but I would guess that she did not. She largely stopped writing about popular culture after the 1960s, and–no matter the magnitude of its scope at the end–the first season superficially doesn’t rise above the level of procedural. Viewers know, of course, that it transcends the procedural, but casual TV guide flippers would not.

Unfortunately, after examining the evidence, I can’t come to a definitive position.

Argument in favor of her loving “The Wire”: length. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate remarks that Sontag gradually starts to acclaim only really long movies in her reviews. Says he,

She seemed to rater artwork in direct proportion to the number of hours it took to experience it. She was demonstrating …a “taste for spiritual and physical effort—for art as an ordeal” (USS, 33) She had become the queen of sitzfleish. * A Yiddish word meaning to apply one’s ppsterior to the seat for as long as it takes.

If she loved the paltry 15 hours that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, then she no doubt would have found The Wire orgasmic.

Inherently contradictory evidence: her attitude toward realism. She hates it. Until she loves it. Her early work is all about proving how great avant garde fiction is and how awful realist fictions are (read–or rather don’t–The Benefactor). Later, she comes to write realist romances in a way that enthralls Cynthia Ozick, sells books, and alienates lovers of consistency. She was against realism before she was for it! What’s to stop her from being so capricious again?

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Evidence against loving The Wire: she dismissed the format completely. This is a theme of one of her later essays, “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning.” She might have liked the show, but you would have first had to get her to watch it.

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 »