Regarding Susan Sontag

Saturday night I watched the showing of Nancy Kates’s marvelous documentary about Susan Sontag at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was lucky enough to belong to the board of advisors for the film, and that brought me to a reception before the film. A few of us (including Terry Castle, from her essay on “Notes on Camp,” and Nancy Kates herself, from “The Conscience of Words”) read something from or about Sontag. (Tip: never read after Terry Castle.) I excerpted a piece I published in PMLA in 2005, in a collection of short essays following her death:

Elaine Showalter describes reading Norman Podhoretz’s Making It in graduate school, impressed by his account of the Dark Lady, the “only famous woman of Letters in New York.” Mary McCarthy had “originated the role,” Showalter goes on to explain, quoting Podhoretz, “but by the 1960s no longer occupied it, having recently been promoted to the more dignified status of Grande Dame as a reward for her long years of service.” Showalter confessed that she was fascinated by the information: “How did you get to be a Dark Lady? Where in New York could you go to try out? Most important, how old was Susan Sontag?” And in one of those anecdotes too predictably bitchy to be true, McCarthy went up to Sontag at a party and said dismissively, “You’re the imitation me.”

From many angles, the film ponders the answer to the question: How do you get to be a Dark Lady?
imagessusanSontagOr, how did Susan Rosenblatt become Susan Sontag? How did she go from Sue in her high school yearbook photo to the stunning, much photographed, female figure familiar to readers around the world.

It helps to be brilliant, it helps to be gorgeous, it helps to be photogenic. Yes. But the film wonderfully shows as it illuminates various aspects of Sontag’s biography, intellectual and intimate, literary and sexual, that the mysterious mix creates the icon.

Even so, a darker question than the “how to” lurks in Showalter’s question: why this phenomenon should occur so rarely among the tiny number of women writers and intellectuals. Perhaps we each could propose a favorite candidate, but the economy of scarcity guarantees that consensus is unlikely.

As Carolyn Heilbrun lamented in 1967, after interviewing Sontag, and conjuring up other comparable legendary female figures—Simone de Beauvoir, Iris Murdoch, the younger Mary McCarthy–“How short the world is of famous, intelligent women: one per country per generation.”

While you are waiting, go see the film!



As a New Yorker born and bred, I feel entitled to kvetch, and I may have never kvetched more than in dealing with the fate of my Paris memoir. But for once I have something to kvell about: Breathless now exists as an Audible book! (Imagine a smiling emoticon here.)

I’m happy about this venture into the land of book listeners. I’m also happy about part of its backstory.

By the time we entered into negotiations, I knew from a novelist friend that Audible was not always flexible about the selection of the narrator. Nonetheless, I started doing some online research to see―oops, to listen to―the various voices available so that I’d be ready with my own preference, even if my taste didn’t ultimately prevail over what the production team wanted.


Many of the books in the memoir section were self-help books: how I overcame my anorexia and other personal challenges. Those books were self-narrated. For the overcoming of suffering to sound convincing an autobiographical performance seemed appropriate.

It was hard to find a first-person nonfiction book that was not of the self-help bent read by a woman. But I finally found what to me felt the perfect choice: the narrator of Orange is the New Black, Cassandra Campbell. In the first few minutes of the sample it became clear that Ms. Campbell had two qualities that mattered to me: a sense of irony and the ability to pronounce French words.

At first Audible was reluctant to commit to my choice, and I feared that they might impose a voice that felt wrong to me. Like a good New Yorker, I prepared to argue my case. But before the choice of narrator blossomed into conflict, the conflict evaporated. Not only did the team agree with my choice of Cassandra Campbell, I received lovely email message from the Director of Business Affairs. “As a side note,” he wrote, “in learning about you and Breathless, I read up a little on What They Saved. I watched an interview you did on TV and so much of your story reminded me of my family and some digging my brother did into our family tree.” In closing, my correspondent apologizes for sharing all the autobiographical (and quite interesting) details of his family history, and concludes by saying, “I just had to share.”

And I just had to share his share. There was to me something incredibly delightful about having made this kind of warm connection in the process of doing business. Almost everything I’ve had to do in order to bring about some favorable attention for my two recent memoirs has been draining or shaming. I could not believe my good fortune in the interactions I had with Audible. My pleasure was not purely about getting the contract. What made me smile, was the writer’s sharing of his story, further proof, it proof were needed, about why memoir is a relational genre (my academic hat).

A friend recently asked me whether I wouldn’t have preferred to narrate the book myself. Audible did not offer me that choice and I was glad. Creating the voiceover for the book trailer showed me the limits of my acting skills; nor did I love hearing my New York accent through my written prose.

Now I’m watching Orange is the New Black, the hugely successful memoir made into an equally successful television series. I can’t say that I identify with the heroine, even if we in some way share a voice. But I am thrilled to share our narrator. I love hearing her voice tell my story.

I’m all ears.


My Memoirs Made Me Jewish

In the year 2000 I received a phone call from a real estate broker who informed me that I had inherited a small plot of land on the outskirts of Jerusalem from my paternal grandparents. The phone call led to years of research and traveling because it opened the door on a family history I knew nothing about. What I found―and didn’t find–ultimately made me want to write a book.

This is the first paragraph of that book: What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past.

When my father died, I became a middle-aged Jewish orphan. It wasn’t that I wasn’t already Jewish, of course, or that I had set out to say Kaddish for him―I had no idea how to do that, even if it had been a daughter’s place. But now that the last keeper of my Jewish past was dead, I began to worry about the future of my Jewish self.


“Triple Silver Yentl (My Elvis)” copyright  Deborah Kass

It was only when I read this passage aloud while giving my first book talk that I realized I had used the adjective “Jewish” four times in three sentences. I had reread and rewritten the paragraph many, many times in the editorial process, and never noticed. And what could be more important in a book than an opening paragraph? But it was too late. I was Jewish in print. Repeatedly.
Thinking about the paragraph now in retrospect, I would say that my unconscious was telling my writing self that I was anxious about whether I was Jewish ENOUGH to justify the book’s subtitle– “pieces of a Jewish past.” True, I had grown up immersed in Upper West Side New York Jewish bagels and lox culture, and I had archival proof of my origins, but my Jewish self and my writing self belonged, I had always thought, to separate domains. What They Saved made me understand how they were joined.

I composed Breathless: An American Girl in Paris a decade before publishing What They Saved, and when I returned to that story almost immediately after the “Jewish” book I saw for the first time that the “American Girl” who went to Paris, was not simply an American girl, à la Jean Seberg. The girl whose adventures I had narrated was, as we used to say, “a nice Jewish girl,” and what she wanted to leave behind in New York was the Marjorie Morningstar fate that had become shorthand for an entire generation of girls. The memoir could well have been called: A Nice Jewish Girl in Paris, but the publishers thought that was, well, “too Jewish,” too niche.


Birthday card from Lorie Novak, with self-portrait by author.

What’s not Jewish enough and what’s too Jewish? I learned from What They Saved and then Breathless that I could only solve the Goldilocks problem–the “just right” of Jewishness–through writing itself, in other words by not solving it at all.