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Did Women Writers Change the 20th Century New York Intellectual Scene?

Michelle Dean's Sharp challenges readers to consider what we gain from reading the lives and works of women writers and how they shaped cultural and socio-political thought in the 20th century and beyond.

Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion
Michelle Dean

Grove Atlantic

April 2018


Not so long ago, before social media enabled all of us to hold forth on viral trends du jour via clever threads/posts, the hub of nearly all public intellectual life in America was New York City. The men and women who wrote for the handful of leading magazines/journals not only shaped political opinions and cultural tastes but also turned writing about them into more of an artful performance than ever before. The best writing was not so much about the hot takes as the pointed takedowns. The important views came in essays of several thousand words rather than pithy phrases of a finite number of characters and emojis. And, when the women writers rose to challenge the male-dominated establishment, several of them were not welcomed into the boys' clubs because they changed the rules of the game even when they simply tried to play by them.

Michelle Dean's latest book, Sharp, focuses on just such women. Ten writers of the 20th century — Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm — earned their intellectual reputations by doing everything the male writers did, but often with more sass, style, and yes, smarts. Readers and writers all over the world still quote from these women's works, many of which continue to stand the test of time.

Given the vast amounts of both primary and secondary sources of information already available, including autobiographies and memoirs, Dean has clearly put in a considerable and methodical research effort. There are introductory sections with relevant aspects of each writer's background, loves and marriage(s), and unconventional entry to writing. Where Dean spends more time, and rightly so, is in unfolding their literary and cultural influences and nemeses, the personal strengths and weaknesses that characterized their writing, the myths that still surround their legacies, and most importantly, the works that made their careers and those that hurt their reputations. Unquestionably, the best parts of Sharp are the several quoted passages from the writers' works where they are revealed in their own words — with Dean providing contextual commentary and, often, her personal insights.

Most importantly, Dean draws a near-straight line through the careers of each of these ten women, showing how they were connected directly or indirectly. New York publishing then was, as it is still now, a small world. Industry insiders knew each other and even sometimes wrote for or in response to each other rather than their larger, general readership. These interconnecting threads added complex textures to both the women's lives and their writing.

All of the women featured here were/are white and grew into their careers mostly during the second wave of feminism, so they also share a common rejection of belonging overtly to any sisterhood. As Dean points out, they were "oppositional spirits" — not only did they not like to be grouped together but some openly and famously despised others. In later years, a handful of them came around to speak for or about feminism. For the most part, however, other than some close female friendships, each woman stood and fought for herself. This is probably also why, when there were missteps — and those happened with every single one of them more than once or twice throughout their careers — they had a tough time recovering.

It would be easy to quibble about which women were selected here and why. Dean defends her choices in the book and in some online interviews by asserting that "these women were there in the fray, participating in the great arguments of the twentieth century. That is the point of this book." Still, there are notable absences like Ozick, Paglia, Steinem, Wolf, and several more. The 20th century also had prominent and skilled women writers of color. For example: Zora Neale Hurston (who does get a cameo here), Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and others. But these women were writing from the margins then. Even now, the attempts to uplift them continue to be somewhat questionable as Dianca London Potts writes in the excellent Shondaland essay, "The Sanitized Words of Complicated Women" (12 April 2018):

But how much of their personal truth is being fully represented in these quotes, in these photos? In our enthusiasm to uplift the women mainstream canon has historically overlooked, we flatten the topography of their lives. Their sharp edges are dulled in order to be palatable to the masses, and we celebrate what works — for us.

Almost two decades ago, another book, Writing Women's Lives (Perennial, 1994) by Susan Cahill, attempted a more inclusive approach. It's an anthology of excerpts from autobiographical narratives of 50 20th century American women writers ranging widely in age, race, ethnicity, and class. For each excerpt, Cahill provides an introductory section briefly describing their backgrounds and literary influences. Most of Dean's Ten are here alongside writers like Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Mary Crow Dog, Sandra Cisneros, and more. Cahill's aim is different — rather than focusing on a particular socio-cultural milieu and genre like Dean, Cahill glorifies a diverse chorus of American women's voices and experiences. Nevertheless, Cahill's book shows that a varying roster of women — established and emerging — were writing groundbreaking works at the same time as these Sharp women. There must have been some cross-cultural influences happening across the various ethnic, racial, and class divides but these do not come through in Dean's accounts. (Read my review of Cahill's anthology here.)

Last year, Deborah Nelson's book, Tough Enough (University of Chicago Press, 2017), featured these women writers (of whom four are also in Sharp): Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Nelson selected her six for their affinity in aesthetic style and certain shared ethical attitudes toward major socio-political movements of their time. Nelson's focus is on their philosophical unsentimentality, hence the adjective "tough". Dean's focus is on their critical precision and wit, hence the descriptor "sharp". Both books are similar in how they present the constant battle against gender-biased stereotypes these women had to wage and the intellectual rigor they developed to survive and thrive on the strength of their works. And both books are not straight biographies or even hagiographies, but provide a thorough reassessment of their many contributions through a careful blend of biography, cultural history, and literary criticism.

So, instead of debating about who did or did not make Dean's Ten, the more pertinent question might be: what do we gain from reading the lives and works of women writers and how they shaped cultural and socio-political thought in the 20th century and beyond? Dean writes:

So when I ask in the following pages what made these women who they were, such elegant arguers, both hindered and helped by men, prone to but not defined by mistakes, and above all completely unforgettable, I do it for one simple reason: because even now, even (arguably) after feminism, we still need more women like this.

Almost a hundred years ago, Virginia Woolf raised a similar point in A Room of One's Own (Penguin Modern Classics, 2002):

But what I find deplorable, I continued, looking about the bookshelves again, is that nothing is known about women before the eighteenth century. I have no model in my mind to turn about this way and that. Here am I asking why women did not write poetry in the Elizabethan age, and I am not sure how they were educated; whether they were taught to write; whether they had sitting-rooms to themselves; how many women had children before they were twenty-one; what, in short, they did from eight in the morning till eight at night.

Yes, we continue to need books like Dean's, Nelson's, and Cahill's to remind us of our women writer models despite all the amazing works these women have given us. It's telling that these women writers are still not as well-respected as many of their male colleagues. Even if some today might argue that these particular predecessors are not necessarily their models, it's important we know them and their works so we can benchmark how far we have come culturally and politically as a society in terms of accepting the power of a woman's voice and her words; so we can see how well our collective ideological immune system is responding to such feminine power.

Tillie Olsen, another 20th century American writer, had her first book published at the age of 50. Though, she had been writing pieces for some of the same magazines that Dean's Ten had also been writing for. In a subsequent book, Silences (Feminist Press, 2003 25th Anniversary Edition), Olsen wrote about her writing journey and all the literature that had gone unwritten by women and minorities because of their circumstances — class, color, sex, etc.

How much it takes to become a writer. Bent (far more common than we assume), circumstances, time, development of craft — but beyond that: how much conviction as to the importance of what one has to say, one's right to say it. And the will, the measureless store of belief in oneself to be able to come to, cleave to, find the form for one's own life comprehensions. Almost impossible for a girl, a woman.

The leeching of belief, of will, the damaging of capacity begin so early. Sparse indeed is the literature on the way of denial to small girl children of the development of their endowment as born human: active, vigorous bodies; exercise of the power to do, to make, to investigate, to invent, to conquer obstacles; to resist violations of the self; to think, create, choose; to attain community, confidence in self. Little has been written on the harms of instilling constant concern with appearance; the need to please, to support; the training in acceptance, deferring. Little has been added in our century to George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss on the effect of the differing treatment — "the climate of expectation" — for boys and for girls.

Every single one of these Sharp women also dealt with "differing treatment" and "the climate of expectation". Even today, writing with conviction, confidence, and craft requires much from women and minorities, despite the proliferation of available platforms, in terms of navigating emotional and physical obstacles. Writing, for many women today, continues to be a political act as it was for Dean's Ten, Nelson's Six, and Cahill's Fifty. Those pioneering women took all the opportunities they could to not only raise their voices publicly but to work relentlessly at their craft and articulate truths like never before. It takes a lot of cognitive energy and hardy intellect to write passionately, innovatively, and assertively in the face of gendered expectations, condescension, dismissal, and ridicule. Their hard-won stripes are certainly well-earned and well-deserved.

A few words on Dean's own writing. Stylistically, it's engaging with visuals like this one: "Mrs. Parker always had a cocktail in her hand and had just dropped a quip on the party like a grenade." It's pointedly insightful, as with this observation of Rebecca West's affair with H. G. Wells: "Not only did West begin this affair with a book review, she also perhaps unknowingly argued for her passion in subsequent book reviews." It's righteously defensive as with this attitude of critics of these women writers: "The degree to which they mistook intelligence for arrogance is no doubt impossible to parse, posthumously ... Men with brilliant, world-encompassing ideas do not seem subject to the same accusations of egotism." And it's objective, as with this assessment of Arendt and McCarthy: "They hadn't been accepted as 'one of the boys.' To the extent men admired their work, they were also hostile and defensive when confronted by criticism from Arendt and McCarthy. To be fair, neither one of the pair had much good to say about most of the men in their set." This is not to say there are no flat phrases or trivial-seeming tangents in the book, but they are few enough to not necessitate calling out as a couple of reviews have done.

In closing, here is one more question worth pondering: if we were to continue drawing lines from each of these women writers, how have they informed how we write today and to whom would they lead us in the present-day set of "sharp" writers in America?

It would probably take an entire other book to answer that properly. The roster of inspiring, diverse women writers continues to grow, even if we may be able to draw straight lines across these brilliant names: from Rebecca Solnit to Roxane Gay, from Zadie Smith to Jessa Crispin, from bell hooks to Jodi Kantor, and many, many more. Our ongoing public debates — on #MeToo, guns, taxes, immigration, the place of art in our technology-driven lives, income inequality, and more — are more important than ever in today's socio-political climate and call for a vastly divergent set of cultural opinions.

That said, here is some cautionary advice from Dean's afterword as we look to these women writers of our times to drive public discourse:

All through this book I have been trying to point out that there is room, in this deep ambivalence about and even hostility toward feminism, to take away a feminist message. Feminism is, yes, supposed to be about sisterhood. But sisters argue, sometimes to the point of estrangement. It is not only commonality that defines us. If we have learned anything from the debates about intersectionality, it is that the experience we call "being a woman" is deeply inflected by race, class, and other sociological markers. It is also inflected by individual personality. Some of us are not naturally prone to fall in line the way a movement generally demands. Some of us are the types who stand on the outside of things, who can't help being the person who asks, "But why must it be this way?" "When you are all alone it is hard to decide whether being different is a blemish or a distinction," Arendt once wrote of Rahel Varnhagen. "When you have nothing at all to cling to, you choose in the end to cling to the thing that sets you off from others." She argued for the notion that it was a distinction, and she was right. 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. We're all stuck with each other, stuck with the history of those who've preceded us. You might make your own way, but you always do it in the streams and eddies forded by others, no matter how much you may personally like or dislike them, agree or disagree with them, wish that you were able to transcend this whole situation. That was certainly a lesson every woman in this book had to learn.

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