Voice of resistance
Andrew Buncombe

Susan Sontag wrote a number of novels, but it was as an essayist that she made her greatest literary impact. For instance, Notes on Camp, which spoke of gay aesthetics, established her as a major new writer.

Susan Sontag opposed the US war against Iraq
Susan Sontag opposed the US war against Iraq

SUSAN Sontag, the writer and activist who died recently, was a fierce critic of US foreign policy.

Sontag, the daughter of a fur-trader, wrote 17 books, including the influential 1964 study on gay aesthetics called Notes on Camp. But in the recent years it was her outspoken opposition to the Bush administration’s so-called war on terror that drew most attention.

In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, Sontag set off a huge row with her suggestion, published in the New Yorker magazine just two days after the hijackings, that Al-Qaida’s action had not been an "act of cowardice."

"The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling and depressing," she wrote. "The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilise the public. Where is the acknowledgement that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilisation" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?" Sontag, who described herself as a "zealot of seriousness," was born Susan Rosenblatt in New York in 1933 and spent her early years in Tuscon, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father died when she was five. Her mother later married an Army officer, Captain Nathan Sontag.

Sontag once described her childhood as "one long prison sentence". She skipped three grades and graduated from school at 15. The headteacher told her she was wasting her time there. Her mother warned that if she did not stop reading, she would never get married.

Although she wrote a number of novels, it was as an essayist that she made her greatest literary impact. For instance, Notes on Camp, which established her as a major new writer, popularised the "so bad it’s good" attitude towards popular culture.

From the 1960s onwards, Sontag was constantly involved in politics. In 1987-89, she served as president of American chapter of the writers’ organisation, PEN. When Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa for Salman Rushdie’s following the publication of The Satanic Verses, it was Sontag who led protests in the literary community.

During the 1990s she continued to campaign for human rights and travelled to the former Yugoslavia calling for international action to stop the civil war. In 1993, she visited Sarajevo and staged a production of Samuel Beckett’s seminal play Waiting for Godot.

Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, once said of her: "I know of no other intellectual who is so clear-minded with a capacity to link, to connect, to relate. She is unique."

— The Independent