Susan Sontag on the Perils of Publicity in Creative Work
By Maria Popova
When Harper’s Bazaar editor Leo Lerman approached Anaïs Nin about profiling her in the magazine, she declined in an exquisite letter, lamenting the way in which such forms of publicity flatten a dimensional and ever-evolving human being into a static, salable story. But publicity — particularly interviews, profiles, and public appearances — has another, perhaps even more perilous demand: It distracts the artist or writer from the very work that sprouted the demand for such interviews, profiles, and appearances in the first place and takes him or her away from both the contemplative space and the dogged dedication that produced that work.
Who better than Susan Sontag to speak to this paradox with piercing poignancy? In the excellent Susan Sontag: A Biography (public library) — which also gave us the story of how the celebrated writer possessed New York and subverted sexual stereotypes — David Schreiber cites Sontag’s eloquent disdain for publicity as a special form of toxic people-pleasing from a 1969 interview with NBC’s Edwin Newman:
I think publicity in general is a very destructive thing, for any artist… It always is a problem. Because even if it’s good, the extent to which you get all this attention is an extra thing for you to take account of. You start thinking about your work as an outsider — you start being aware of… what other people think of you. And you become self-conscious… It’s taking your attention away from your own business.
Schreiber adds that Sontag resented giving interviews for the tabloid press and television, a medium for which she reserved special contempt and called “the death of Western civilization.” In declining such requests, she would often remark, “Beckett wouldn’t do it.” (Indeed, many of life’s perplexities snap into uncompromising clarity when approached with a lens of “What would Beckett do?”)
Complement with Sontag on the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture, the gap between love and sex, beauty vs. interestingness, education, stereotypes, literature and freedom, and why lists appeal to us.
Published September 22, 2014