Scaling the Sierra with Susan Sontag

They say the primary task of a writer
is to write well. And to go on writing well.
Neither to burn out nor to sell out.
In the end, that is to say, from the point of view
of literature, a serious writer
is not representative of anybody or anything
but herself or himself
– Susan Sontag

With that in mind, I took some time off from work last week and hit the road, one step ahead of burn out. I headed for Squaw Valley in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the annual gathering of the Community of Writers. For more than 40 years, writers from all over the United States and beyond have gathered there each summer.

The Lodge at Squaw Valley

For a week they discuss the literary arts and present their own work to other writers—some famous, some just starting out. It’s the only place I know or can easily get to outside universities where art and literature are talked about freely, without even so much as a blush of self-consciousness. It’s a safety-release valve for writers like me who work day jobs, clean house, shop, cook and take care of families.

I haven’t been with the writer’s community for a couple of summers now and I urgently needed to be there. Although I wasn’t enrolled in the workshops this year, it was good to visit with friends and sit in the afternoon panels that are open to the public.

The panel on style started with the premise suggested by late novelist and essayist Susan Sontag: “Style is the writer insisting on something.” The panel explored the how and why of prose style.

Panelists included short-story writer Ron Carlson; Karen Joy Fowler, author of the best-selling novel The Jane Austen Book Club; Lynn Freed, author of The Servants’ Quarters; and Rhoda Huffey, author of The Hallelujah Side. Panel moderator Andrew Tonkovich, editor of the “Santa Monica Review,” began by saying literary style is interpretative judgement and the exercise of that judgement.

Panel on Style, Ron Carlson, left, Karen Joy Fowler,
Rhoda Huffey, Lynn Freed, Andrew Tonkovich

Tonkovich also suggested that style is the celebration of the subjective as expressed by the artist. Huffey said style is the ultimate brevity, implying fiction is idiosyncratic shorthand for the artist’s larger vision.

Carlson said style is about working and working and working to bend the pen your own way, noting that style comes from the root word steel and a stylus is a kind of pen.

In her essay, Sontag wrote: “from the point of view of the spectator, it is the creation of an imaginary décor for the will.”

But, Carlson took exception to this idea, saying “Style isn’t about putting a coat on a dog. It’s not fashion,” He likened the execution of style instead to the analogy of a well struck baseball careening toward the outfield fence with “luck riding on it.”

A couple of panelists suggested that style in serious writing is hard to define, but like pornography, they said they know it when they see it. Lynn Freed suggested style is “being yourself on purpose” and noted there’s an aspect of morality in good writing style, implying a religious, political or philosophical stance.

I don’t know about you, but hearing a discussion like this is a rare treat for me. I’m stuck in the “how many inches of copy do you want for that story?” mode. Or in making the proverbial choice: paper or plastic at the grocery store. But, I read and think about these things every chance I get, although it’s a lonely musing. Not many people in my life care about these things like I do.

So, during the heady talk last week, I thought this: Style is the writer being at ease in her own arsenal—comfortable with the creative weapons gathered and skilled enough to use them. I envisioned the Armoury Hall at Inveraray Castle, home of Clan Campbell, were the weapons are displayed in artful precision, ready to take in hand. 

“In the final analysis, “style” is art,” Sontag said.

In her essay “The truth of fiction” she invokes our common humanity to become involved with our work to experience detachment from self and from the world. But, Sontag says, “the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched.”

To find your own style, Freed suggested writers “stay in the weather of what your are,” while Carlson said: write 40 stories. After a writer has done that, he said, they’ll find themselves in the middle of their own, unique style.

I sat in on a couple of other discussions – “Reading and the Novel,” which offered reading suggestions for writers, and “Writing beyond the Conference,” about how to keep going on your own. I came away with a long list of things to read and consider until the Community of Writers gathers once again in the rugged Sierra Nevada to talk unabashedly about art and literature in the glen of the gods.

Susan Sontag’s essay “On Style” is available online at

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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