Regarding the Writing of Others

otr susansontag1v Regarding the Writing of OthersIn March 2004, the novelist and critic Susan Sontag delivered the first Nadine Gordimer lecture to audiences in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The title of the speech was “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning,” and in addition to offering an appreciation of Gordimer’s writing, it was a long reflection on the nature of narrative in general.

It was her last speech, and at the beginning of a book of Sontag’s essays published posthumously in March of this year, the editors explain that this book of essays had had no working title, and that they had decided upon the title At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches for the whole collection; the speech forms the last chapter of the book and had never before appeared in print.

On April 20, the Times Literary Supplement published a short letter to the editor, written by John Lavagnino, a senior lecturer in humanities and computing at King’s College London.

Mr. Lavagnino has read a review of At the Same Time, and particularly noted its treatment of Sontag’s passage on “hyperfiction.”

“Sontag most likely never read any hyperfiction at all,” he wrote, “because her account of what it is derives, without attribution,” from a March 1998 New York Times Book Review column by Laura Miller.

While it seems impossible from reading Ms. Miller’s 1998 Book Review piece and Sontag’s essay to conclude how much hyperfiction Sontag had read, Mr. Lavagnino’s observations about the similarity between the two pieces does to hit the mark.

“Shortly after personal computers and word-processing programs became commonplace tools for writers, a brave new future for fiction was trumpeted,” Ms. Miller had written in the lead of her New York Times Book Review piece.

“Ever since word-processing programs became commonplace tools for most writers—including me—there have been those who assert that there is now a brave new future for fiction,” were the words Sontag delivered in the 2004 lecture.

Ms. Miller also wrote: “Hypertext is sometimes said to mimic real life, with its myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes …. ”

Sontag wrote: “Hyperfiction is sometimes said to mimic real life, with its myriad opportunities and surprising outcomes …. ”

Neither of these borrowings would seem to cut to the bone of the essay, which asserts that the novelty for overthrowing the author—and, more profoundly, the constraints of time and space that bind a book made of paper—does an injustice to writing at large.

But there’s more:

“People who read for nothing else will read for plot,” wrote Ms. Miller, “yet hyperfiction’s advocates maintain that we find it ‘confining’ and chafe against its ‘limitations.’”