Michelle Dean, a magazine journalist and book critic, won the 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing awarded by the National Book Critics Circle. The influential female 20th-century writers she congregates in her debut book, “Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion,” are distinguished by the power of their voices. Dean has chosen to characterize these thinkers and writers as “sharp,” as in perspicacious.
Her biocritical study — of Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler and Janet Malcolm — discusses commonalities as well as differences. At some point almost all wrote reviews of books or films or both. Many suffered the early and untimely death of parents, often fathers.
All had to push against pervasive sexism to move their ideas and observations into print, and they were often the first or the only female writer on the masthead or in the interior pages of the publications they wrote for. This book might have been titled “Against All Odds.”
Dorothy Parker began writing her tart observations, first in light verse, before women gained the right to vote. German-born Hannah Arendt wrote her massively important “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” in her second language, often sending off manuscripts to writer friends for help in “Englishing” her prose. Of Susan Sontag, one female reviewer for the Washington Post wrote: “No girl that good-looking has any right to have all those brains.”
Some of these writers had very public feuds and rivalries, even with one another — Renata Adler wrote a devastating takedown of film critic Pauline Kael in the New York Review of Books, for example — and often resisted the label of feminism. But as Dean concludes: “You can speak only in the voice you have been given. And that voice has a tenor and inflection given to you by all the experience you have. Some of that experience will inevitably be about being a woman.”
Dean seeks to place these writers as central. In her preface, she writes: “The longer I looked at the work 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.”
As a female writer who cut her intellectual teeth reading the work of these women in magazines and between book covers, I never considered that these writers were not in the center of our shared intellectual history. But if anyone needed convincing, this work of readable scholarship should do it.
Dean proves a sharp writer and critic herself.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance journalist and book reviewer who appears regularly on Kansas City’s NPR affiliate to dish about books with fellow book critics.
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
By: Michelle Dean.
Publisher: Grove Press, 362 pages, $26.