Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Susan Sontag on the novel, novelists and literature

I'm often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: "Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world." [...] "Be serious." By which I meant: never be cynical. And which doesn't preclude being funny. [...] "Take care to be born at a time when it was likely that you would be definitively exalted and influenced by Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy, and Turgenev, and Chekhov."

A great writer of fiction both creates - through acts of imagination, through language that feels inevitable, through vivid forms - a new world, a world that is unique, individual; and responds to a world, the world the writer shares with other people but is unknown or mis-known by still more people, confined in their worlds: call that history, society, what you will.

But of course, the primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.) To write is to know something. What a pleasure to read a writer who knows a great deal. (Not a common experience these days ... ) Literature, I would argue, is knowledge - albeit, even at its greatest, imperfect knowledge. Like all knowledge.

Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate - and, therefore, improve - our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.

[...] ("Time exists in order that it doesn't happen all at once ... space exists so that it doesn't all happen to you.")

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention. [...]