1. Audio: Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography”

    A special project for 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, 75 at 75 invites authors to listen to a recording from our archive and write a personal response. Here, Siri Hustvedt writes about Susan Sontag’s lecture “On Classical Pornography.” It was recorded live at 92Y on November 2, 1964. Hustvedt appears at 92Y on Monday night for a reading with Paul Auster, whom she first met at a Poetry Center reading and later married.

    Hustvedt writes:

    In 1964, Sontag was thirty-one years old, a young woman who had made a big stir with Notes on Camp. When she began to speak on the 92Y recording, I remembered her voice. She was much older when I knew her, but her voice sounded the same to me. Her delivery of the lecture surprised me a little, however. Her tone is low, calm, academic, qualifying. There is little humor and no rhetorical flights. She is not reading her text, but my guess is she is sticking close to it, and she wants to make sure that each of her points is clearly understood by her audience. She emphasizes that her adjective “classical” for pornography is something of a joke and that her definition of porn is unconventional: as a literary form it must embody the idea that lustful acts are inherently immoral.

    Unlike the erotic texts of China and India that celebrate sexual joy, pornography pits virtue against vice in an ethical struggle. In 1964, pornography occupied a different place in the culture than it does today. What was then called “smut” is now widely available to anyone who can type out a few words on a computer keyboard. The pornography trials of literary works—Howl (1957), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1959) and Tropic of Cancer (1962)—were not remote, and Sontag is on a mission to defend literature from censorship. Although she does not dwell on this, it is the subtext of her lecture.

  2. This week we are sharing, in celebration of 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, five new installments—one per day—of our 75 at 75 project, which features recordings from the Poetry Center’s archive and personal responses by contemporary authors. Today it’s Dubravka Ugrešić on a recording of Susan Sontag from 1992Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview will be published next week.

    Asked what a writer is, Sontag pauses for a second and cautiously responds that “there are all kinds of writers” and that “every definition of a writer is true,” before clearly articulating her own definition: “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” “A writer is a professional observer,” she adds. And onwards, like a flash flood, as if to assert her manifesto in a single breath, Sontag speaks of the loneliness that is a prerequisite to writing (“writing does require solitude”); about political activism (how writers “should allow themselves to be drafted”); of how the contemporary writer is “a handworker in the era of mass production”; of how one becomes a writer simply because one “couldn’t help not to be a writer”; of writing as obsession and “auto-slavery”; of both American anti-intellectualism and the trap of elitism, not infrequently a mask for anti-intellectualism. “A writer is someone who creates or tries to create literature,” says Sontag, yet “literature is a tiny percent of what is produced in book form.” 

  3. Sam Waterston, Charlotte Rampling and Robie Porter in James Salter's lost film, “Three” (1969).

    Susan Sontag introduced James Salter at a 92Y reading in 1997 with “If he can be described as a writer’s writer, then I think it’s just as true to say he’s a reader’s writer; that is, he’s a writer who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure and something that is a bit of an addiction. I myself put James Salter among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read and whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.”

    Salter returns to 92Y on Monday night (Apr 29) with Richard Ford.

  4. From the Poetry Center Archive: Susan Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick

    Nick Hornby makes his first appearance at 92Y tonight, taking part in an Unterberg Poetry Center program entitled “First Reads,” where writers are invited to read a work they’ve never read before, then talk about the experience of this literary encounter. For his “First Read,” Mr. Hornby has chosen Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

    The event is a collaboration with The Believer magazine, and Vendela Vida, one of the magazine’s founding editors, will serve as introducer and interviewer.

    In anticipation, we wanted to share an archival recording that features a pair of writers whose careers were distinguished, as Mr. Hornby’s has been, by both their fiction and criticism—Susan Sontag and Elizabeth Hardwick. The event took place here at 92Y in April of 1988, with Ms. Sontag reading her appreciation of Lincoln Kirstein, an excerpt from one of her essays on Wagner and something from “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” which at the time was still very much a work-in-progress.

    Ms. Hardwick read some selections from her writing on New York City and ended with a longer piece on Dorothy Wordsworth, which she introduced as follows:

    It’s a bit Virginia Woolf-ish, with some influence of The Common Reader, where you talk about people, give a little bit of biography and so on, and write in your own way. This kind of criticism is not very much liked by academics—I don’t know if anybody likes it or not—but I very much do, especially if it’s written by Virginia Woolf. When Susan and I were talking about different kinds of essays, I said to her, well, I’m going to read the sort of Virginia Woolf kind. I don’t mean it’s as good as that, but it’s something like the essays in The Common Reader.

    In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments which the Poetry Center has presented across the decades, we have begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. To purchase tickets to tonight’s event with Nick Hornby, please click here. To look at the rest of the season’s line-up, please click here. And for access to other recordings on our Virtual Poetry Center, including James Wood’s “First Read” of David Foster Wallace from 2010, please click here.

    Unterberg Poetry Center webcasts and access to our archive are made possible in part by the generous support of the Sidney E. Frank Foundation.