Ms. Sontag’s work made a radical break with traditional postwar criticism in America, gleefully blurring the boundaries between high and popular culture. She advocated an aesthetic approach to the study of culture, championing style over content. She was concerned, in short, with sensation, in both meanings of the term.
“The theme that runs through Susan’s writing is this lifelong struggle to arrive at the proper balance between the moral and the aesthetic,” Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and an old friend of Ms. Sontag’s, said in a telephone interview yesterday. “There was something unusually vivid about her writing. That’s why even if one disagrees with it – as I did frequently – it was unusually stimulating. She showed you things you hadn’t seen before;she had a way of reopening questions.”
Through four decades, public response to Ms. Sontag remained irreconcilably divided. She was described, variously, as explosive, anticlimactic, original, derivative, naïve, sophisticated, approachable, aloof, condescending, populist, puritanical, sybaritic, sincere, posturing, ascetic, voluptuary, right-wing, left-wing, profound, superficial, ardent, bloodless, dogmatic, ambivalent, lucid, inscrutable, visceral, reasoned, chilly, effusive, relevant, passé, ambivalent, tenacious, ecstatic, melancholic, humorous, humorless, deadpan, rhapsodic, cantankerous and clever. No one ever called her dull.
Ms. Sontag’s best-known books, all published by Farrar, Straus &Giroux, include the novels “Death Kit” (1967), “The Volcano Lover” (1992) and “In America” (2000);the essay collections “Against Interpretation” (1966), “Styles of Radical Will” (1969) and “Under the Sign of Saturn” (1980); the critical studies “On Photography” (1977) and “AIDS and Its Metaphors” (1989); and the short-story collection “I, Etcetera” (1978). One of her most famous works, however, was not a book, but an essay, “Notes on Camp,” published in 1964 and still widely read.