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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

by Michelle Dean

Call them what you will – brainy, opinionated, witty, cutting, critical, too smart for their own good. In Michelle Dean’s first book, female critics get their due. The book is timely, appearing alongside Women’s Marches and campaigns such as the Future Is Female and #MeToo. It also highlights an irony: some of our most distinct and commanding female voices are also the ones most wary of the concept of sisterhood.

Dean structures her examination on a somewhat straightforward chronological timeline, beginning with the pithy Dorothy Parker and moving on to profiles of Rebecca West, Zora Neale Hurston, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean builds bridges from one woman to another by any means necessary: approach, location, subject matter, marriage, publication, friendship, or the fact they attended a party together. Their individual contributions to the ranks of critical discourse are contextualized through the parallel narratives Dean has delineated.

That said, Sharp does not constitute a big feminist melting pot. Dean locates each thinker in the context of her own time and summarizes their works (with a clear focus on the important texts) with great aplomb. We see whip-smart minds reacting to fascism, parenting, sexuality, war, disease, race – even, on occasion, feminism. Dean is adept at reducing complex philosophies to a few demystifying sentences.

While the author lauds her subjects, she does not ignore their failures, follies, and misjudgements. Parker, for example, is characterized as self-hating; West looked confident but wore a mask. McCarthy is criticized for being haughty and impertinent. Sontag wrote with the grim awareness that no one cared about high culture anymore, while Kael’s film criticism argued that people cared about it too much. Dean’s close examination of the women isn’t intended to knock them down; on the contrary, it legitimizes the courage each one displayed.

The personal information in Sharp isn’t terribly revealing for anyone who might have read previously published biographies (which are plentiful and often serve up juicier gossip). But the only real letdown is the cursory inclusion of Zora Neale Hurston as a means of avoiding a complete whitewash among the women profiled. Dean argues that Hurston would have made better use of an opportunity granted to West to cover the civil rights movement. This is a no-brainer, as is the notion that sending Sontag and McCarthy to Vietnam produced articles that revealed more about the insular state of their own consciences than the experiences of the Vietnamese, or even of American soldiers.

Dean acknowledges the suspicions these smart women harbour about feminism while illustrating the ways in which each wrote and behaved in a manner that was, strictly speaking, feminist. The book is by no means exhaustive – it is predominantly centred on white intellectuals from New York City – but the portraits it presents are vital and engaging.