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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Where the Stress Falls

Susan Sontag

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To purchase Where the Stress Falls

Title: Where the Stress Falls
Author: Susan Sontag
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1982-2001)
Length: 347 pages
Availability: Where the Stress Falls - US
Where the Stress Falls - UK
Where the Stress Falls - Canada
Temps forts - France
Worauf es ankommt - Deutschland
  • This collection first published 2001
  • Includes pieces previously published in a wide variety of magazines, as well as introductions to books, speeches, program notes, etc.

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Our Assessment:

B : loose, varied collection of pieces on literature and art

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age A 25/3/2002 Peter Craven
Bookforum . Fall/2001 Minna Proctor
Daily Telegraph . 12/1/2002 Rachel Cusk
The Economist A+ 1/11/2001 .
The Guardian . 26/1/2002 Ian Pindar
The Independent . 19/1/2002 Lisa Appignanesi
The LA Times A 7/10/2001 Hilary Mantel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 9/7/2005 Andrea Köhlers
The New Statesman B+ 21/1/2002 Frances Spalding
The NY Observer . 17/9/2001 Sven Birkerts
The NY Times Book Rev. D 4/11/2001 William Deresiewicz
The Observer . 13/1/2002 Robert McCrum
TLS B- 26/4/2002 Michael Gorra
The Washington Post B- 16/9/2001 Scott McLemee

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus.

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a remarkably variegated book by the most versatile critic of her generation who is, at the same time, a devotee of chastity and understatement in her own writing. (...) She is also the least parochial critic on earth and this book is everywhere full of luminous specific comments on literature, painting, film." - Peter Craven, The Age

  • "A series of incidental pieces composed over twenty years for a number of publications on a variety of subjects, the collection is predictably uneven. Its sustaining interest ebbs and flows depending on the degree to which a reader shares Sontag's eclectic taste." - Minna Proctor, Bookforum

  • "Sontag is at her best as a critic of the visual, and her essays here on art and photography are absorbing." - Rachel Cusk, Daily Telegraph

  • "Ms Sontag is so preoccupied by questions of global significance that it is hard not to suppose she may be saying something about her own fear of neglect. (...) It so happens that Where The Stress Falls is as luminous and wide-ranging a volume of criticism as one could wish for." - The Economist

  • "Susan Sontag packs a mean essay. Her thought is passionate, her prose brimming with energy yet always lucid in its argument. (...) Sontag remains serious; though her tastes, if the essays in this volume are any useful indication, have at least partially moved from the heights and abysses of excess to more measured hills and vales" - Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent

  • "The essays in the new collection (...) give a good indication of the range of her sympathies and enthusiasms." - Hilary Mantel, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(T)his new collection, written over the past 20 years, strikes a somewhat doleful note. At times, it seems that what is on offer is less a transforming experience than a jeremiad. Nevertheless, many will find this book hard to resist. (...) What saves her in places from a higher form of grumbling is her radicalism and eloquence." - Frances Spalding, New Statesman

  • "Where her impassioned seriousness once seemed almost a premonition of things to come for all of us, helping to validate new ways of approaching art and the world, where her championing of more esoteric European artists seemed a vital pioneering enterprise, the same fierce intellectualism and catholicity now come across as a rear-guard holding action, the essays a set of pleas for an urgency of aesthetic response that feels unlikely" - Sven Birkerts, The New York Observer

  • "(A) few of these pieces are quite fine, but most reproduce the faults of her earlier essays while eschewing their virtues. (...) Trying to sound lyrical, she merely sounds silly. The real interest of this collection lies in the way Sontag uses it to reshape her critical persona and cultural stance." - William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The introductions to several volumes of photography are so enticing they make me want to see the pictures, while "Thirty Years Later", a new preface to Against Interpretation, will prove central to any account of her career. Yet if the best of her earlier essays were occasions in themselves, too much here seems merely occasional." - Michael Gorra, Times Literary Supplement

  • "What gives ? The early Sontag was ruthless about cultural clichés. (...) Her manner now is virtually indistinguishable from that of George Steiner in his lugubrious moments as Last Intellectual, striking that solemn pose as embodiment of high seriousness -- perched atop the Nintendo ruins of Western Civilization." - Scott McLemee, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Where the Stress Falls collects 41 pieces written and published by Susan Sontag over the previous two decades. Included are book reviews, introductions and forewords to various books, catalogue copy, program notes, talks, and other odds and ends. Some pieces were originally published in foreign languages, and are available in English here for the first time. Publications in which these pieces first appeared range from the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, and The New Republic to Vanity Fair, Art in America, and House and Garden.
       It is a broad, varied collection. Some order by imposed in the division of the book into three sections: Reading (focussing on books and writers), Seeing (focussing on the visual and performing arts -- including cinema, dance, painting, and photography), and There and Here (looking to the world at large, and considering everything from travel to politics to translation). But Sontag offers no introduction or preface, no overarching explanations or unifying thread. Only a few of the pieces seem in any way connected (specifically several which discuss her experiences in war-torn Sarajevo); the absence of an index further isolates the content.
       Sontag again stands up for many less well known artists. There are several Central and European authors she draws attention to -- and most of those she considers (in prefaces for republished books or new translations, as well as some book reviews) are already dead. Rising Anglo-German literary star W.G.Sebald and, curiously, Polish poet-essayist Adam Zagajewski (whose Another Beauty (see also our review) she reviews) are the only living authors she devotes pieces to.
       Sontag is a good and knowledgeable reader. Her enthusiasm is, at times, irrepressible: "Losing yourself in a book, the old phrase, is not an idle fantasy but an addictive, model reality." She conveys her passion well.
       This volume does not offer a miscellany of book reviews, where authors are often forced to consider tomes of little interest to them; no, here Sontag only discusses books and authors that mean something to her, and move her. The bar is set high here: Sontag wonders more than once: "Is literary greatness still possible ?" Certainly, she seems to believe it can still be found. From forgotten Robert Walser to Gombrowicz's Ferdydurke Sontag does an admirable job of presenting these writers and, especially, their texts. Readers could do worse than use her as a guide in selecting their reading.
       Occasionally one wishes for more -- especially regarding some of the older pieces. In one piece, from 1982, Sontag writes: "of all the intellectual notables who have emerged since World War II in France, Roland Barthes is the one whose work I am most certain will endure." She perhaps still feels the same, but times and perspectives change, and the time is perhaps ripe for a reassessment. One wishes one knew where she thinks Barthes stands today, and how enduring his work is, looking to the future.
       In the section on Seeing Sontag ranges across other fields: dance, opera, cinema, photography, painting. Her observations -- her readings -- are not always quite as acute when the written word isn't the subject, though they are occasionally more fanciful. She offers an alphabetical piece -- A Lexicon for Available Light -- and other less conventionally structured pieces. Greatness is also sought, but here found less often, as the pieces -- which are often decidedly casual, and include program notes and introductions to a variety of new books -- often serve a different purpose. (Beside introductions to what must be coffee table photography books and the like, it is the pieces in this section that first appeared in periodicals such as Vogue, House and Garden, and Vanity Fair -- magazines which presumably have a readership with ... different expectations than those in which the more literary pieces were published.)
       The last section, There and Here, considers the world at large and the author's place in it. The pieces in this section are generally more personal, both reflective and revealing, and they are the most broadly appealing in the collection. She offers several reflections on travel, whether about reading the work of Richard Halliburton or travelling to Sarajevo. Of particular interest are Sontag's descriptions of staging Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo (and her experiences there in general), and her general thoughts on the role of the writer (and the intellectual) in the contemporary world.

       In one piece Sontag offers her answers to a survey sent out by a French literary magazine about intellectuals, noting that: "I was the sole American on the list of respondents to whom they sent" the survey. While this fact also says something about how Europeans define "intellectual", it also does place Sontag well. She is not quite one of a kind, not entirely a lone engaged writer (of this particular sort) in the US, but there aren't many like her.
       The pieces in Where the Stress Falls are polished, clever, and almost all of interest. But they are also program notes and book reviews, catalogue copy and reminiscences: i.e. the collection is a jumble of very varied material. And most of its stands considerably better there where it was first found -- as an introduction to a newly republished book (that one can then read), or a program note for an opera (that one can then see), etc. It's nice to have the stray pieces collected, but it is not an ideal book simply to "read". (And an index would also have been useful.)

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Where the Stress Falls: Reviews: Susan Sontag: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Susan Sontag lived 1933 to 2004. She has written numerous highly acclaimed and prize-winning works of fiction and non-fiction.

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© 2001-2022 the complete review

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