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 »

Midway through his terrific new memoir Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, Michael Greenberg describes pitching a potential film to someone he considers an up-and-coming directer.

I had pitched him a story I had lying around: A police reporter affects the outcome of the crimes he covers, then writes about them, hiding his involvement. ‘That’s the plot of Superman,’ he said without hesitation. That I had not considered this similarity myself made me realize I was out of my league.

I too felt that way, laughing at the description. Who would think to explain Superman this way? To boil it down to this one particular element of the story? Not a Superman that emphasizes heroism, immigration, America, or the continuing capacity for reinvention, but a Superman defined by his reportage.

This description of the Superman saga is akin to Gordon Hutner’s great description of the plot of The Sun Also Rises in What America Read:

The Sun Also Rises tells of an American newspaper writer with a war injury living in Paris who drinks heavily and gets involved in a frustrating romance with a promiscuous aristocrat.

Yes, both descriptions are true, but they leave out too many of the elements we consider essential to have much worth. Where is World War I in this description of TSAR? As beneath the Iceberg as in Hem’s account; or the trip to Spain? or Robert Cohn?

No, Greenberg’s pitch doesn’t quite describe Superman. Writing reportage that leaves Superman out of the story is something that Clark Kent could never do. Superman, after all, isn’t Batman trying to stay in the Shadows, more powerful, as the Burton films tell us, as an urban legend than a known quantity. It’s the uncertainty of Badman that makes him so terrifying in Burton’s gothic vision.

So I briefly considered writing a post arguing that Greenberg should write Superman. Beg, Borrow, Steal is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The prose is taught, unadorned but affecting, and the book is filled with funny moments that magnify Greenberg’s intellectualism. Moreover, his life experiences show that he can write anything. At least, he’s had to in order to make a living. But, in the end, I can’t see his style working for the Man of Steel. Maybe a one-shot or limited series about Clark Kent, something like “Under a Yellow Sun.”

No, in the end this is a post about the director who made the Superman connection. Does it show an ability to distill plots down to their barest elements? Or the ability to connect ideas to myth? Either way, it’s yet further proof of an idea in Steve Hely‘s How I Became a Famous Novelist: that Hollywood thinks on a different scale than other media.

“You’re realizing I’m much better than you at this, right?…I deal in movies. I need to get four, five million people watching, minimum, or I’m on my ass in this town. I can’t afford to fuck around like you can.”

How I Became a Famous Novelist was a terrifically entertaining book and I hope it was a big success. But while I was reading it, I kept trying to think what type of movie it would be, how I would adapt it. Oddly, I think the only way to go is to turn it into an art movie, something with an extremely limited release that can stay true to the characters and critique.

Or maybe I just don’t think about things on the right scale.

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If you aren’t yet doing so, check out The New Republic‘s new online book review. It’s great.