For two distinct yet intimately related reasons, we were appalled when we learned that Benjamin Moser had won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography for his book Sontag: Her Life and Work (Ecco). First, as many critics have pointed out, what Moser presented as the chief discovery of his biography — Susan Sontag’s supposed sole authorship of Philip Rieff’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist — is at best a misapprehension of the notion of authorship, and at worst a calculated distortion of the facts meant to garner publicity.
In her review for The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm writes: “[Moser] drops this bombshell: he claims that Rieff did not write his great book — Sontag did. Moser in no way substantiates his claim.” With characteristic wit, Malcolm continues:
By Moser’s lights, every writer who has been heavily edited can no longer claim to be the author of his work. “Get me rewrite!” the city-room editor barks into the phone in nineteen-thirties comedies about the newspaper world. In Moser’s world, rewrite becomes write.
In Salmagundi, David Mikics describes the sleight of hand Moser employs as follows: “[He] blithely insists, again and again, that Sontag was the sole author of The Mind of the Moralist. When quoting from the book, he says ‘Susan described’ or ‘Susan noted,’ never giving Rieff any part at all. In effect, Moser steals the book from its actual author.”
Moser’s distortion should not be read as a righteous, if overly zealous, attempt to restore authorial rights to a woman. On the contrary, Moser has repeatedly used his own role as editor and “rewriter” to rob women of credit for their work.
In an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, published on August 16, 2019, Magdalena Edwards describes her problematic experience working with Moser, who was to serve as the editor of her translation of Clarice Lispector’s novel The Chandelier. Moser tried to get Edwards fired with the argument that “he would have to rewrite every line” of her translation, then took over the revision process and ended up with a co-translation credit. The essay details a pattern of such behavior on Moser’s part, including his appropriation of ideas from other Lispector translators and biographers.
Moser’s most notable appropriation verges on plagiarism. As Brazilian scholars have demonstrated, his 2009 biography of Clarice Lispector, Why This World, reproduces the structure of Nádia Gotlib’s Clarice, uma vida que se conta (Ática 1995), the first biography of Lispector published in Brazil, and cribs many of Gotlib’s critical insights.
In the case of Sontag, Moser committed another serious offense against his predecessors. In June 2019, Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock, co-authors of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (W.W. Norton, 2000; revised and updated edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2016), wrote a letter to Ecco, Moser’s publisher, asking for the removal of accounts of events that did not happen and that libeled Rollyson and Paddock. The scurrilous passages were eventually redacted prior to the biography’s official publication by Ecco in September 2019, but by then they had already been circulated in galley form. The damage was done.
How many documented examples of vexed scholarly conduct and plagiaristic tendencies are needed for the Pulitzer Prize Board to take notice and take pause? One would expect that the concerns voiced by a range of writers published in a range of well-respected publications would call into question whether Moser’s Sontag stands up to the excellence the Pulitzer Prize is meant to embody.
But a lack of scholarly scruples is only a part of the problem. Moser’s bullying of women translators and biographers is not limited to the page. In August 2019, translator and scholar Susan Bernofsky shared her experiences on Twitter: “I myself was once bullied by [Moser]: physically restrained via a ‘jerk and pull’ handshake and verbally threatened. He’s over a foot taller than me. It felt violent, and clearly was intended to.” And in May 2020, after Moser’s Pulitzer was announced, Bernofsky expressed her grave concerns on a public Facebook post:
It’s dismaying to see a major award (specifically the just-announced biography Pulitzer) go to a bully who’s physically aggressed and threatened me as well as unleashing his misogyny on younger women I know, because it means this person will now have even more power in the literary world, will be asked to sit on prize and fellowship juries, etc., enabling him to contribute further to the unfortunately still quite high toxic masculinity quotient in the literary marketplace. He even plagiarizes women! I provoked his ire by standing up for a woman whose professional accomplishments he was trying to eclipse (by excluding her entirely from a series of three public events for a major — and later National Translation Award-winning — book she translated).
The Pulitzer Prize not only grants Moser enormous prestige, a $15,000 cash award, and the promise of higher advances for future book contracts, it also affords him greater power over younger and less established colleagues. Given Moser’s past conduct, those who have spoken out have reason to be nervous. We are at risk, especially since our own editors, agents, and colleagues have often advised us to keep quiet.
We must protect the social and ethical fabric of our community. We must take our institutions to task when they fail us. But this is about much more than a literary prize. This is about two brilliant women writers, Clarice Lispector and Susan Sontag, whose legacy is now in the hands of a man with a terrible track record of stealing from and bullying female colleagues.
What would Sontag and Lispector expect the Pulitzer Prize Board to do? We believe we know the answer, even though it is difficult to hear.
Magdalena Edwards, co-translator of Clarice Lispector’s The Chandelier (New Directions, 2018) and visiting scholar at UCLA’s Latin American Institute.
Nádia Gotlib, author of Clarice, uma vida que se conta (Ática, 1995; revised and updated seventh edition, Editora USP, 2013)
Lisa Paddock, co-author of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon (W.W. Norton, 2000; revised and updated edition, University Press of Mississippi, 2016)
Carl Rollyson, co-author of Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon