In case it’s unclear, Susan Sontag really is against interpretation. Of her own life, that is. She has risen in protest again, this time of W.W. Norton’s unauthorized biography of her.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux president and founder Roger Straus has written to Norton editor in chief Starling Lawrence on Ms. Sontag’s behalf, to express concern about the contents of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon , by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, to be published in June.
“She has a history of suppressing, or attempting to suppress, any unauthorized media notices about her,” said Ms. Paddock of Ms. Sontag’s pre-emptive strike against the biography. “She doesn’t want the hydraulics to show.”
“I think it’s about being a powerhouse in New York City,” said Mr. Rollyson, who has written biographies of Martha Gellhorn and Rebecca West.
The irony, of course, is that Ms. Sontag is a past president of PEN and a member of its board of trustees, making her a symbol of free speech worldwide.
The dust-up began on Dec. 6, when agent Elizabeth Frost-Knappman, of New England Publishing Associates, sent out a letter to 15 periodicals inviting them to consider first serial rights for Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon . The idea was for the excerpt to coincide with the publication of Ms. Sontag’s latest novel, In America , which Farrar will publish in March.
Nothing odd there, except that one of the editors who received the letter was Steve Wasserman of the Los Angeles Times Book Review . It is common knowledge in the New York literary world that Mr. Wasserman has been friends with Ms. Sontag for some 30 years. Ms. Frost-Knappman, who works in Chester, Conn., did not know.
Ms. Frost-Knappman was peddling a book that referred to Ms. Sontag, author of such works as On Photography and Illness as Metaphor , as “the Sybil of Manhattan” and “the Kenny G. of literature … The authors write of Sontag’s public persona and private passions, including her open love of women, strategies behind her meteoric rise to fame, her political triumphs and missteps. Above all, they show how the life of Susan Sontag reveals the making of an icon,” read the letter.
Mr. Wasserman faxed the letter to Ms. Sontag. Ms. Sontag informed Mr. Straus and First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus. On Dec. 14, Mr. Straus sent a letter to Mr. Lawrence stating that the pitch letter “leads all of us to believe that W.W. Norton & Co. is about to publish a scandalous and shocking account of her [Ms. Sontag's] life.” The letter went on to say, “Let me also say that it is still hard for me to believe that a distinguished house such as W.W. Norton would be peddling the kind of biography that this confidentiality agreement and the covering letter suggests.”
Mr. Garbus then faxed the agent on Dec. 17, requesting a copy of the twice-vetted manuscript. “As I told you, it gives me concern, for I understand it violates the privacy rights of third parties,” Mr. Garbus wrote. He was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
A few days after Ms. Frost-Knappman heard from Mr. Garbus, she heard from the biographers’ editor at Norton. “Alane [Mason] called and passed along a message from the publishing brass: ‘Would you stop circulating manuscripts until we have a chance to review things?’” That was three weeks ago, and she has not yet heard from them, she said.
Meanwhile, six publications–including Vanity Fair, Talk , the Atlantic Monthly , and Mirabella –signed the confidentiality agreement. Talk and Mirabella have the full manuscript, and the others have at least one chapter.
Despite Ms. Frost-Knappman’s provocative cover letter, publishing sources contend the book is a rather academic look at Ms. Sontag’s life, which is to say: dry. Ms. Paddock, however, said Ms. Sontag’s reaction has been par for the course.
“She has been marvelously successful at working all the angles,” Ms. Paddock said. “I don’t mean it to be pejorative, I mean it strictly in a political sense. She’s managed to appeal to both high and low culture, she’s written the definitive essay on pornography, on science fiction, she’s movie critic ne plus ultra ; and yet she wrote this romance which was a best seller. She’s written on people who were marginal and she gets to be in Zelig .” And yet, said Ms. Paddock, “I’m sure she’d deny with her dying breath that she’s had a ‘career.’”
Ms. Sontag declined to comment.
Pat Conroy has redefined the meaning of the word “blurb.” Back in September, Alfred A. Knopf editor Jonathan Segal sent the author galley proofs of In Glory’s Shadow: Shannon Faulkner, The Citadel, and a Changing America , by New York Times reporter Catherine S. Manegold in the hope of receiving a few kind words for the dust jacket. Instead he received a 2,515-word missive that eventually wound up in the January issue of Atlanta magazine. Turns out one of Mr. Conroy’s friends–he had faxed it to three or four–had faxed it along to the monthly.
Mr. Conroy’s absence from the book is at the heart of his complaint. “I was surprised that you sent me a copy of the book, Mr. Segal, since I could find no evidence in the book that I even attended the Citadel or played an active and vital role in the entire Shannon Faulkner passion play,” Mr. Conroy wrote.
Ms. Manegold said she had twice tried to contact the author of The Lords of Discipline , and Mr. Conroy had not responded. That’s possible, Mr. Conroy conceded. He said he went through his telephone records and his correspondence and could find no record, but “This doesn’t mean she didn’t try to contact me,” he said.
Mr. Conroy’s absence, however, may have more to do with the substance of the book, and conflicting interpretations of just what that is. To Ms. Manegold, “The focus of the book is about a history of abuse of young men. It took the interjection of women onto the campus to galvanize men to make their concerns public. How sad it wasn’t addressed for all those years. I think you can teach discipline and order–and obedience even–without abuse. If you look at World War II, you have kids who went from their kitchens and men from offices and they fought honorably and well. We’ve lost our way in feeling we need to duplicate a war zone in a training field. Only 18 percent of these kids are going for military careers. What are you putting human beings into? To me that’s the central driving thing of this.”
“It’s not a tick-tock of the Faulkner case,” Ms. Manegold added.
Her book’s dust jacket, however, suggests otherwise. Witness the book’s subtitle and the photograph on the back cover of Ms. Faulkner, the young woman who broke the gender barrier at the Citadel.
Mr. Conroy, too, has his thoughts about what Ms. Manegold’s book should be. And if it is Ms. Faulkner’s tale, Mr. Conroy argues that he earned his place in it.
“She wrote me out of the history of Shannon Faulkner because I was a white Southern male and Citadel graduate who fought with every fiber of his being for women to come to my school. Ms. Manegold is guilty of bad history, bad journalism and, I think, very bad and shortsighted feminism,” Mr. Conroy wrote in his letter.
Mr. Conroy charged Ms. Manegold with being “too rigid a feminist” to see that Ms. Faulkner’s admittance to the Citadel was a triumph, not a defeat. “A feminist cannot understand or fathom or translate the Citadel,” Mr. Conroy wrote. “In her loathing of the Citadel culture, she cannot bring herself to admit that anything good or worthwhile or exemplary can spring out of such an offensive and male-dominated crucible.”
Readers will notice that the book’s index has 40 subheads under “hazing at the Citadel.” It has no entry for Pat Conroy.
Mr. Conroy was not pleased. “How do you examine the entire environment of the Citadel without talking to me?” Mr. Conroy told The Observer . “I’ve been the leading critic of the Citadel for the last 30 years.” He compared that number to the four and a half years Ms. Manegold spent working on her book.
Mr. Conroy even got huffy at the publisher. “It is not only a bad book; it is a shameful one, and to think it is being published by the fabulous house of Knopf,” he writes.
“Listen, free country, free opinions,” said Mr. Segal.
James Salter has four books to his name, but when he turns in the next one, will it be his fifth? Mr. Salter is revising his second novel, The Arm of Flesh , about the tale of a fighter squadron in the Rhineland in 1955. The new book is called Cassada , after the book’s young pilot. It will be published this year by Counterpoint Press.
“The big problem is whether to call this a new book or the same book,” said Mr. Salter, from his home in Bridgehampton, L.I. “I haven’t worked that out yet.”
The 1961 jacket copy reads: “The book moving at the same time through present and past, wielding large fragments in a strange, almost independent way, is first opaque, becomes translucent, and then, with increasing swiftness, powerful and clear.”
Apparently, Mr. Salter himself was unconvinced. “It’s told in many voices, and they’re not identified carefully. So I’ve eliminated four or five characters and strengthened others. The themes of the book is that sometimes it’s the best as well as the worst who don’t survive, and there’s a reason for that. Also that doing the right thing, being good, isn’t enough.” The book never made it into paperback and in due time went out of print.
“I knew nothing about writing, really–only enough to copy a Faulkner novel that had overwhelmed me. I was so poorly informed I had the idea no one would notice. It was a poor tribute to Faulkner–self-conscious, unfocused. But at the core was an idea that touched me and that was untouched in the book. I see in the original book a kid who was sort of proud of himself and a little arrogant.”
WhenHarper & Brothers published The Arm of Flesh , Mr. Salter was 35. He is now 74. Of the retrofitting process, Mr. Salter said, “It’s like being in a writing class and correcting some very good student’s work,” Mr. Salter said. “I didn’t have my own voice.”
The author has since found plenty to change: “the tone of voice, the whole idea that this would be interesting, in terms of writing.” He paused. “I was just a kid. All writers are self-taught, but I was in the beginning phases of that.”
Can he picture that kid writing the book? “Yes, in a small, littered room in an old building on Peck Slip. Peck Slip wasn’t gentrified then. The [South Street] Seaport wasn’t there. I remember sitting there on the slip. Occasionally I’d go to lunch at Sloppy Louie’s or the Paris Bar. The room cost $30 a month or something. Mark di Suvero was around the corner, there were painters down there in the area.”
Mr. Salter wrote during the week and spent weekends flying in the National Guard. Now he looks up every once in a while and notices great V’s of flying geese.
He hopes to turn in a finished manuscript at the end of January. Whether it’s good is up for grabs. “You’re never certain whether you’ve done the thing or not,” he said.
Amy Tan had tears in her eyes. Kurt Vonnegut wore an air of resignation. The occasion was a memorial service for Faith Sale, their editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Ms. Sale had also worked with Donald Barthelme, Kaye Gibbons and Joseph Heller. On Friday, Jan. 7, some 400 people gathered in the Great Hall at Cooper Union to remember an editor who had spent a lifetime holding authors’ hands and working with language.
Alfred A. Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta, media reporter Ken Auletta, outgoing Penguin Putnam Group chief executive Michael Lynton and many writers were there. Roy Blount Jr., Grace Paley, Lee Smith, Ms. Gibbons, Hilma Wolitzer, Ms. Tan and Mr. Vonnegut took the stage one after the other to talk about Ms. Sale, who died of complications relating to cancer at the beginning of December. She was 63.
“Her tastes in authors and books influenced millions of readers,” said Penguin Putnam Inc.’s chief executive, Phyllis Grann. Later on, out by the crudités and cheese, Ms. Grann told The Observer that the company would not be hiring an editor to fill the vacuum left by Ms. Sale. “It’s the end of an era,” Ms. Grann said. “Faith is irreplaceable.”
Certainly that’s how her writers must feel. Ms. Tan, who lives in San Francisco but leased an apartment in New York to be with Ms. Sale when she was diagnosed with cancer in 1995, had tears in her eyes. She said she was a believer in ghosts, and that she planned to have regular seances with Ms. Sale to talk about “why and how she was wrong about the afterlife.”
Ms. Tan is set to work with her old writing teacher Molly Giles–who does not work in the industry. But should Ms. Grann try to find another editor to take over where Ms. Sale left off? A running joke at Putnam is that the only reason Putnam acquired The Joy Luck Club (which spent 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, was translated into 28 languages and has sold more than a million copies in America since its publication in 1989), for $12,000, was because Ms. Grann was on holiday that week. Literary fiction, goes the argument, needs advocates in a commercial time.
Virginia Barber, a longtime agent who was part of a monthly dinner group with Ms. Sale, was surprised to hear of Ms. Grann’s plan not to fill Ms. Sale’s post. Ms. Barber, who represents such authors as Alice Munro and Carolyn Forché , said, “That would be a mistake. I trust Phyllis to find someone with the moral and intellectual commitment to publishing that Faith had, and the experience and the dignity. I mean, you don’t go out and do that right away. But her publishing house is too distinguished and too broad not to have somebody of Faith’s stature,” Ms. Barber said.
The Publishing column can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.