APRIL 19, 2018
MICHELLE DEAN’S Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is an ambitious book. It tells the stories of 10 women known for their influential writing on politics, literature, film, philosophy, theater, and culture. These are women with wit, skill, and drive, women who shaped the cultural conversations of their time, women whose writing we still read. Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Renata Adler, Pauline Kael, and Nora Ephron: these names will likely be familiar to LARB readers. While some of these writers were friends (Arendt and McCarthy) and some were foes (Kael and Adler), they indisputably have much in common, and Dean makes a strong case for reading their lives and careers alongside one another. They were bold, smart, and opinionated fellow travelers in “a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.”
Sharp’s dramatis personae is substantially similar to Deborah Nelson’s in her recent Tough Enough (which I reviewed for LARB last year): Arendt, McCarthy, Didion, and Sontag appear in both books. But while Nelson’s book is a rigorous academic study of these writers’ work, Dean’s is an overview, pitched to a more general audience. She is as interested in the lives of its subjects as she is in their writing, and provides a useful introduction not just to her writers’ careers but to the legendary literary establishments and institutions of the 20th century that they worked within and against: the Algonquin Round Table of the 1920s, the Partisan Review of the 1930 and ’40s, The New Yorker in the 1970s and ’80s. The downside to Dean’s focus on the lives of her subjects is that their writing sometimes takes a backseat to their lives. I would have appreciated more time devoted to careful readings of West’s journalism and less to her relationship with H. G. Wells, more analysis of McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Group and less of her marriage to Edmund Wilson.
When Dean does get down in the weeds and engage with what these writers actually wrote, she often does it quite well, and the book’s strength is in its accounts of debates among public intellectuals. For example, she handily sketches the cultural conversations surrounding Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, carefully parsing Arendt’s complex argument about “the banality of evil” as well as the arguments of prominent figures, including Norman Podhoretz and Gershom Scholem, who opposed it. She also catalogs, with great zeal, Pauline Kael’s many debates with male film critics, from Siegfried Kracauer, who she felt “turned [his] own preferences into a monomaniac theory,” to Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory she eviscerated in her infamous essay “Circles and Squares.” Instead of reading film narrowly through the lens of its director, Kael argued for a pluralistic approach to her subject:
I believe that we respond most and best to work in any art form […] if we are pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgments, if we are eclectic. […] Eclecticism is not the same as lack of scruple; eclecticism is the selection of the best standards and principles from various systems of ideas. It requires more care, more orderliness to be a pluralist than to apply a single theory.
Dean shares Kael’s talent for writing clearly and forcefully. In glossing “Fantasies of the Art-House Audience,” first published in Sight and Sound in 1961, Dean describes Kael’s “deepest insight as a critic”: “[S]he believed that those who insisted on watching foreign films, who believed themselves to thus be watching a higher and better sort of art when they eschewed the popular movie houses, were full of it.” This sentence’s careful assemblage of subordinate clauses, which collapses with the snap of the phrase “were full of it,” is delightful: Dean can deliver a zinger as sharp as those of her any of her subjects.
But Sharp is, in many ways, a missed opportunity. Dean opens with the claim that she has “gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp.” In the next sentence, she elaborates: “The precise nature of their gifts varied, but the had in common the ability to write unforgettably.” Dean goes on to position her writers as “proof positive that women were every bit as qualified to weigh in on art, on ideas, and on politics as men,” and writes that “[t]he longer I looked at the work of these women laid out before me, the more puzzling I found it that anyone could look at the literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century and not center women in it.” I agree with Dean on this point. However, the book ultimately offers an exceedingly narrow view of what the “literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century” actually looked like.
Dean acknowledges in her introduction that many of the women she writes about “came from similar backgrounds: white, and often Jewish, and middle-class.” Ultimately she is not very interested in investigating the way that these similarities affected and enabled their writing, and fair enough: the book is focused on gender rather than race, religion, or class. But the effect of this choice is that Dean repeats the same injustices she professes to despise. She laments that, “[i]n a more perfect world, […] a black writer like Zora Neale Hurston would have been more widely recognized as part of this cohort, but racism kept her writings at the margin of it.” But this seems disingenuous, given that Dean herself has the power to recognize Hurston — along with a number of other women writers of color — as part of this cohort, to write her into the canon from which she’s been excluded.
True, Dean does devote a few hurried pages to Hurston, focusing on a series of articles that she wrote during the 1950s about the trial of Ruby McCollum, a black woman on trial for murdering a white man. But instead of devoting serious time to Hurston, she praises and then dispenses with her quickly, claiming that she might have been, under different circumstances, thought of as a precursor to the writers of the New Journalism movement. But what if Dean did the work of restoring Hurston’s nonfiction legacy, well known and documented by academics, to a wider audience? What if she forcefully made this claim about Hurston’s connection to New Journalism herself? In addition to writing several novels and book-length anthropological studies, Hurston wrote for a number of national magazines, including the widely circulated Saturday Evening Post. Why not devote the same amount of attention to Hurston’s coverage of the Ruby McCollum trial as she does to Janet Malcolm’s coverage of the murder trial of Jeffrey MacDonald later in the book?
Instead of breaking new ground and making previously unexplored connections between women authors, Dean elects to tell the same stories of elite, white, New York–based writers that have been told many times before. As I was reading Sharp, I made a list of the all of the women of color whose stories Dean might have told. Why not include a chapter on the pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells? Or, if Dean wanted to keep her focus on the 20th century, a chapter on Jessie Fauset, editor and writer at the influential NAACP magazine The Crisis? Or journalist Marvel Cooke, who was the first woman writer at the New York Amsterdam News in the 1920s, and the first African American to work at the Daily Compass in the 1940s? Why not bell hooks? Audre Lorde? Toni Morrison? Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga, whose anthology This Bridge Called My Back helped define a generation of women writers? Or Michiko Kakutani, whose sharpness is so legendary that her book reviews were the subject of a Sex and the City episode?
Dean tells the stories she chooses to tell well, and Sharp is an accessible and smart introduction to some of the most interesting prose writers of the 20th century. The legacies of writers such as Dorothy Parker and Joan Didion are safe in Dean’s hands, and she has done important work by illuminating the biographical and social continuities between her subjects. But it is a shame that a book with so much potential and ambition, a book that seeks to define a century of American literary and intellectual history formed by women, is so narrow in its sense of that history.