On Herself

September 17, 2006

Today I finally got to read this selection from Susan Sontag’s journal, published in the New York Times Sunday magazine. It is fascinating and revealing, and if you like her writing or are even mildly interested in her career, you should check it out. Of course it is kind of a big tease since the note at the bottom says the first volume of her journals won’t be published by FS&G until 2008… or 2009. So hurry up and wait, but in the meanwhile take a look. The excerpts begin in late winter 1958, when she is about to turn 26 and she’s just moved to Paris. It’s sometimes hilarious, as in this choice description about one of the guests at a cocktail party she was attending: “a man who looked like Jean-Paul Sartre, only uglier, with a limp, and was Jean-Paul Sartre.” Mostly, though, her collage of notes to herself are intent meditations on identity and becoming a writer.

Coming during a week in which creative nonfiction prof had informed us that the three best essayists in the English language were Dead White Male #1, Dead White Male #2, and Dead Black Male (White, Orwell, Baldwin–I’m not saying they’re not great, but why pick three and call them best when you have a whole library of unique, accomplished writers with entirely different perspectives and artistic projects to choose from? what is the freaking point? and why teach it that way?) and Melville prof subjected us to 2 hours and 45 minutes of penis analysis (what, after all, is a lightning rod but a copper pole of varying length with two glass balls on the end?), this passage from the journal really caught my eye:

The only kind of writer I could be is the kind who exposes himself.. . .To write is to spend oneself, to gamble oneself. But up to now I have not even liked the sound of my own name. To write, I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself. . .and makes his books out of that meeting and that violence.

Himself, himself. Was she referring to a particular writer, or was this a kind of subconscious slip that expresses how deeply even a profoundly, agressively intelligent female writer can internalize the idea that masculine=good when it comes to her writing, because everwhere growing up that is what she has read and seen glorified and genuinely aspired to, because that is largely what is taught and that is what is published and given prizes? When women writers win acclaim, it is usually because they have adhered to the standards men have set for literature. In the competition of how to write the best essay written like a man, I am unsurprised that men have declared themselves the winners 95% of the time.

If I seem a little on about this, it’s becase I am, and it’s because I have learned that just to notice this is to seem always on about it, because most writers and students of literature that I talk to have just never considered that what we call good and better and best is a reflection of what we have been taught is good and that is mostly a reflection of what men have written and gotten published. Believe me, I used to be one of them. It took a quietly but meaningfully feminist Spanish professor to beat it into me. The idea that there is, or could be, a genuine difference between the way men tend to write and organize the world and the way women would if left to their own imaginations comes as a surprise to most people. And the idea that it might just be different, not better or worse–whoah. That’s radical. When educated, well read women tell me that yeah, they’ve read female writer X, but she’s just not as good as male writer Y, I just want to shake them and say, by whose standards? Who are you listening to? Who do you think you are? Do you think that if you just buy in and change yourself enough, that men will respect you? Is that the path you want to leave after you for other women to follow? Maybe she’s not as good, maybe she’s just doing something you don’t even recognize yet. Unless you’ve thought about it that way it is to soon to tell.

Male or female, for nothing else, reading through Sontag’s journal extract reminds one what an excellent motivating force guilt can be when one is trying to become a writer. New Year’s Eve, 1958, words to live by: “Nothing prevents me from being a writer except laziness. A good writer.” That’s probably the real point. If you never write anything you’ll never change anything, or at least have the chance.

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