Picking a Subject: Part Three


Carl Rollyson

Cast your mind back to the good old days, the 1990s—you know, the prelapsarian, pre-Facebook age when no one was thinking, “Hey, I could put a whole library on a piece of silicone wrapped in a plastic and metal tablet.” Only a few souls like Richard Feynman had that idea. Most of us literary types were already reading some things on computers, to be sure, but libraries to us still were wall-to-wall edifices pictured in articles about, say, brainy Susan Sontag (SS) and other members of the literary elites.

I say elites because if you did your literary time in New York City during the Age of Sontag, you know that besides being called things like “The Dark Lady of American Letters,” Sontag was also known as the Queen of Mean. She was haughty. She was lofty. She was pretty close to what Lady Caroline Lamb called Byron: “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” To say that she did not suffer fools lightly is to, ahem, put it lightly. On a dozen occasions, my wife Lisa Paddock and I watched Sontag stride into literary events trailing a retinue of courtiers.

SS had only one publisher, ever: RS, Roger Straus the redoubtable. SS was Rogered to the max, which meant none of her books ever went out of print. Besides publishing controversial books like Against Interpretation and On Photography, she specialized in writing forewords to books by European writers that Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG) published to considerable fanfare and modest to negligible profits. Sontag ennobled literature, and her role meant—at least to her—no fraternizing with the hoi polloi.

By this point, you may be thinking I’m the mean spirited one. But, really, I am not exaggerating the rep SS had as a kind of literary gangster. Of course, gossip could exaggerate this side of her, but it was true to a remarkable degree that what everyone said about SS never made the papers. Perhaps such gossip seemed too petty for the New York Times, but, in effect, their coverage of her was a kind of literary petting—soft focus feature articles and the like. You couldn’t get an interview with SS without agreeing to let her vet it—although most of the time, as my wife and I learned while researching Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon, journalists knew the rules going in and censored themselves by steering clear of certain questions.

So why on earth would my wife and I want to write about such a well-defended figure, and why did we did think any publisher would dare buy our proposal? Lot of biographers steer clear of writing about living figures. After all, the evidence is not all in. Lots of people won’t talk while the subject is alive. The subject will have right of reply. In rebuttal, I would say that the evidence is always disappearing (people you want to interview die, for example), and all the data and documents are never available at once. And why not give your subject a sporting chance to have her say?

SS, though, was a special case. No one in her inner circle would remain there if they kissed and told, and no one outside the circle would know enough to seem credible. To that bit of logic I have several counterarguments: 1. We were not interested in writing a gossipy book that reported rumor or divulged intimate secrets. We wanted to document how someone becomes Susan Sontag. Of course, we wanted to know as much about her life as possible, but really, the idea of “the making of an icon” did not require covert activities on our part. We were reasonably certain that enough people in the publishing industry would be willing to talk, on the record or off. 2. We had a bedrock of fact to rely on.

In the early 1990s, as I was finishing my Rebecca West biography, I noticed a small item in PW announcing that FSG had deposit a cache of papers at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Probably the publishers thought they were just cleaning out their files. I can’t believe anyone looked very carefully at what they were releasing. My biographer’s antennae went way up when PW listed SS among the authors whose documents were included in the FSG shipment.

So Lisa and I contacted the NYPL and learned the collection had not been catalogued. We didn’t care, and NYPL obligingly let us go through the entire FSG treasure—for so it was, since it contained letters between SS and RS, not to mention a vital letter from celebrated editor Robert Giroux, and lots and lots of details about how FSG and SS had managed her career. This was our story.

Let me take a moment in this history of how I have picked my subjects to say that every biography I have written has a story to tell. I know this assertion sounds obvious, but I don’t mean simply that each biography is the story of my subject’s life. I mean, rather, that something in that life story stands out as a theme or a set of characteristics that has a special appeal for me. In Sontag’s case, that theme was the idea of coming to New York (she was born in NYC, but raised in Arizona and California), as I did, to make a name for yourself. How do you do that? What are you willing to do? And in SS’s case, what separated her from legions of others who had the same ambition? In other words, if you want to write a biography, don’t ask yourself: Do I have enough material? Don’t ask, “Will people speak to me?” Don’t ask, “Do I have the right qualifications?” Don’t ask, “Who will buy the book?” Well, of course you will ask yourself all of those questions, but ABOVE ALL, ask yourself: “What is the story I want to tell, and why am I the one to tell it?” Once you know you have a story to tell, and some piece of the story like the FSG files that can serve as your foundation, then the rest is likely to fall into place. Oh, one more thing: In certain cases you might consider taking on a co-author.

Because I have to admit, I had a secret weapon: my wife. Lisa is not only a better writer than I am, she is a lawyer who knows a good deal about copyright, a vexing issue for biographers. Living figures use copyright law as a form of censorship. Martha Gellhorn, for example, forbid any quotation from her work (outside of fair use) in hopes that prohibition would discourage Doubleday from going ahead with my biography of her. Her tactic worked once she had a powerful Manhattan law firm send the publisher a threatening letter. My agent then had to resell my book to St. Martin’s Press, who had their own lawyers give my book a good going over before it appeared. I knew that Sontag would be an even more difficult case, and I had to put together a proposal that sold a publisher on Lisa and me as a team that SS would not be able to stop.

Instead of minimizing the problems of doing an SS biography, we positively relished them when we put together our pitch. We were daring a trade house to be bold and take a risk. We claimed no inside knowledge. On the contrary, we billed ourselves as outsiders, working at the periphery of SS’s world, tracking her satellites and penetrating her inner circle only so far as was needed to tell our story.

Susan Moldow at Scribner turned down the proposal, telling our agent that she could not do the book because she was one of Sontag’s friends. How much of a “friend” she actually was, I don’t know. But I think there were skads of editors and publishers who thought of themselves this way—just like those thousands of “friends” Bill Clinton mentions in his memoirs.

But Gerry Howard at Norton was our man. He called when I was not at home and gave Lisa a good grilling about matters such as fair use and how we would handle a firefight with Sontag. Talking to Gerry means you never win an argument. But that’s okay, since I think he wants to see if you can stand up to a good argument, or even an attack on your work. If we couldn’t handle Gerry, how would we be able to handle Sontag? I’m glad he had a chance to speak with Lisa alone, so that he could see why I was so confident about doing the book. After nailing down the details of the contract and taking out a libel insurance policy, we met with Gerry and a Norton vice-president to go over how much quoting we could get away with under fair use. That settled, we were off!

SS did the predictable things. She didn’t answer our letters but had her agent, the wily Andrew Wylie, reply. He wanted to know what we were up to. Writing a biography, we answered. Nothing further from the Jackal. But then SS sicced a Manhattan law firm on us. Gerry and Norton stood firm and replied on our behalf, saying we were engaging in no “actionable” behavior. Translation: Nothing we did would get us sued. Then SS got Martin Garbus into the act. This so-called defender of the First Amendment called our agent and applied still more pressure. Our agent stood firm.

Gerry reveled in our reports of encounters with various interviewees and what we were finding in the FSG archives. One day he called only to discover our Brooklyn number had been discontinued. He called my office at Baruch College, and when I returned the call, he demanded to know why we hadn’t told him we were moving to Cape May County, New Jersey. He was outraged! Why? I guess just because we had not told him beforehand. Funny thing is, Gerry left us in the hands of another editor when he moved to Anchor Books. But that is another story for another day.

As we suspected, the NYPL FSG collection and an interview with an important FSG editor confirmed that the firm overlooked no aspect of SS’s career. Roger Straus was building up the next Mary McCarthy—as Edmund Wilson divined when Roger brought SS to a party. Wilson took a look at her and didn’t like what he saw. Subsidiary rights and translations played a major role in FSG’s campaign to make Sontag into a world-class author. The money was miniscule, but the point was to say she was in print in over thirty countries, and so on. I won’t go into detail about the super service FSG gave SS, much of which is retailed in “Susan Sontag: The Making of a Biography,” another chapter in my as yet unpublished memoirs.

Reviews of our biography were mixed, with most reviewers in a state of denial about Sontag’s thuggery—although subsequent memoirs by her friends have created an even darker picture than our measured account offered.

I want to leave you with the story of the interview that didn’t happen. This tale will give you a flavor for what it was like working on a made writer like SS.  A friend of ours, the late Carole Klein, met a writer at the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park and mentioned in conversation our SS biography. The writer excitedly said she had taken a course with SS at City College and had plenty to say about her ex-teacher. So we called up the ex-student, and we arranged to meet at the club for lunch. The following day, our intended interviewee called to say she had decided not to talk to us. Why? we wondered. Well, this writer had a book coming out, and she was afraid anything she might say would dispose SS against her, resulting in bad reviews. Did the writer really think SS had that power? we asked. The writer wasn’t taking any chances. “Okay,” I said. “Then let’s do the interview strictly off the record. You said you have something to say about SS, and as her biographers we really need to know what it is.” She agreed, and the appointment was on again. About a half hour later, the writer called back. She had again decided not to do the interview. She wouldn’t say why “off the record” was not good enough. “Okay,” I said. “Can’t we meet and you just tell us. Don’t you think you have an obligation to just tell us? You are implying there are things we should know, and even if we can’t use them—we won’t even cite you as a confidential source—what you say may very well have an impact on our sense of who SS is. Once again, she said yes. And we thought, finally, we had assuaged her anxieties. Ten minutes later the phone rang. The writer said her husband had said she should not do the interview under any conditions. And that was that.

Sometimes, with certain subjects, I suppose interviewees have to be offered the option of a witness protection program.

Coming attractions: How I Became Jill Craigie’s Deauthorized Biographer.

Books mentioned in this column:
Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Olson Paddock (W.W. Norton, 2000)


Carl Rollyson is Professor of Journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York. He reviews biographies regularly for The Wall Street Journal, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and other newspapers and periodicals. Carl is the author of a dozen biographies, including Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress, Rebecca West: A Modern Sibyl, and with his wife, Lisa Paddock, Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon. His studies of biography include: A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography and Biography: A User's Guide. More about Carl and his work can be found at his website. He is currently completing a biography of Dana Andrews and beginning work on a biography of Sylvia Plath. When not writing, he is playing with his three Scotties. Contact Carl.



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