The controversial American writer and critic, Susan Sontag, is this year's recipient of the German book trade's prestigious peace prize.
Susan Sontag wins peace prize in recognition of her contribution to the defense of free thought.
Susan Sontag has won the German book trade's peace prize for defending free thought, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association announced Tuesday.
Sontag, a writer, critic, playwright and commentator, is well known on both sides of the Atlantic. A student of European literature and philosophy, she's famous for -- among many things – helping to bridge the cultural divide between America and Europe (though she herself has referred to it as being as deep as the "Grand Canyon").
In a statement accompanying the announcement, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association lauded the 70-year-old Sontag as "the most prominent intellectual ambassador between the two continents." They have signaled her out for "defending honor and free thought in a world of false images and distorted truths".
Most notably, Sontag has been an adamant critic of the war in Iraq and President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. For Europeans struggling to make sense of America's hegemonic neo-realist policies, Sontag's writing represents a welcomed voice of reason from across the pond and at times mirrors their own outrage.
Embracing many forms
As an artist and intellectual, Sontag has embraced -- and some would say mastered -- many forms. She originally gained prominence as an essayist in 1966 with the publication of her first collection, Against Interpretation. A tour-de-force, the work covered a wide range of cultural topics, both high and low, spanning Sartre, Camus, Godard, science fiction, and psychoanalysis -- all woven together with a distinctive voice.
Since then, Sontag brought out several more collections of essays, wrote frequently for many prestigious newspapers and magazines, published several novels, and directed four films and several plays.
Her most recent novel, In America, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2000. And her latest collection of essays, Regarding the Pain of Others, an examination of contemporary depictions of war, was released in February of this year. The German version will be in stores in August.
Defending freedom of thought
Throughout her career, Sontag has been a human rights activist. From 1987 to 1989 she served as president of the American chapter of PEN, the international writer’s organization dedicated to the defense of free expression and the advancement of literature. She has also led a number of campaigns on behalf of persecuted and imprisoned writers.
From 1993 to 1996, Sontag lived out what she preached and went to work in besieged Sarajevo, where she brought attention to the city’s struggling literary scene with her staging of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Accolades and controversy
Susan Sontag has never shied away from controversy -- always eager to make her political views visible in her work. As a result she has received both praise and criticism, often at the same time for the same work.
In May of 2001, Sontag was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, awarded at the Jerusalem International Book Fair. Many activists advocating the Palestinian position urged Sontag to decline the invitation in protest of Ariel Sharon's policies. But she went anyway, stating that she wanted to use the opportunity to visit the country and observe the policies firsthand.
Later that year. Sontag ignited a firestorm of controversy with a relatively short – just 500 word -- piece she wrote for the American magazine, The New Yorker, a week after September 11th. Sontag wrote, "the unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators in recent days seems, well, unworthy of a mature democracy." She went on to deride America's "robotic president." Most notably, citing the moral neutrality of the concept of a coward, she maintained that, "Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards."
At a time when many had not yet processed the magnitude of events, and those like-minded didn't dare speak out, Sontag's provocative stance was noteworthy, if not universally accepted and indicative of her life-long defense of free thought.
In Germany, where Sontag’s works have been met with critical acclaim, the author enjoys something of an elite status as a commentator on U.S.-European relations in the country’s leading newspapers. She has also recently been invited to lecture on poetics at the University of Tübingen.
Sontag will be officially awarded the peace prize, which is worth €15,000 ($17,000) on October 12 during a ceremony at the Frankfurt Book Fair.