Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Women Who Write: Michelle Dean's Sharp

A close-up of the cover art for Michelle Dean's Sharp. (Photo: Amazon)

The incontestable assertion behind Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Atlantic; 384 pp.) is that “the forward march of American literature is usually chronicled by way of its male novelists.” The book, whatever its minor shortcomings, is a witty, healthy corrective to a myopia that afflicts many of us. An obvious fact of American literature is that it has been overwhelmingly phallocentric in nature, from its romantic traditions to its symbology – not to mention the critical canon, erected by men, that has only in the last few decades begun to be meaningfully dismantled. Even, or especially, for a reader who loves the likes of Melville, Hemingway, and Mailer, the mighty winds of maleness can grow stale and suffocating. One tires of that world of suffering loners, bilious bromance, and bullet-headed misogyny; one needs to immerse oneself in other minds, hear other voices, be maddened and inspired by other egos. And so one falls gladly and hungrily upon the singular works of – oh, I don't know – Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Highsmith, Vernon Lee, Mary Shelley, Mavis Gallant, Paule Marshall, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Iris Murdoch, Carson McCullers, Muriel Spark, Joyce Carol Oates, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Walker, Edith Wharton, Flannery O'Connor, Gertrude Stein, Alison Lurie, Grace Paley, Dawn Powell, and many others less famous.

If a few names are conspicuously missing from that list, it’s because they are present in Sharp. This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some succeeded in other genres, almost all are distinguished for their non-fiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker. Several were at the center of at least one major literary controversy (McCarthy’s feud with Lillian Hellman; Adler’s New York Review of Books attack on Kael; the defamation suit brought by one of Malcolm’s subjects). Each was or is noted for, as Dean’s subtitle puts it, “having an opinion”: that is, a contentious opinion, boldly and unequivocally stated. Above and beyond these are other commonalities – of spirit, of temperament – which enabled the women to power through sexist barriers that limited, or shut out altogether, many of their contemporaries. “Through their exceptional talent,” Dean writes, “they were granted a kind of intellectual equality to men other women had no hope of.”

Plus, a reader might justifiably add, they were white, and privileged by favorable economics and/or good connections. By the opposite token, surely exceptional talent was not all it took for a woman to become predominant in American letters. It also required timing, hard work, and a willingness to be, or at least play at being, one of the boys. But most of these women don’t seem to have seen that last part as a compromise. On the evidence, most preferred the intellectual company of men, and many had defining relationships with male mentors (for West, H.G. Wells; for Arendt, Martin Heidegger; for McCarthy, Edmund Wilson). Dorothy Parker was, aside from the women’s liberationist Ruth Hale, the only female charter member of the Algonquin Round Table, the informal club of wits whose heyday was the 1920s; yet there’s no suggestion that in moving among men she was being less than true to her own nature, and the same can generally be said of Sharp’s other subjects.

Author Michelle Dean. (Photo: John Midgely/LA Times)

Adjacent to this is the problematic relationship of almost all of the women to “feminism” (the quotation marks are, quite often, Dean’s). Several of the ten wrote notably skeptical think pieces about the women’s movement of the sixties and seventies; the others mostly took up female liberation only when it was incidental to some broader critique (see Kael’s reviews of films with feminist themes). And yet these women were as vulnerable to sexist attack as any hard-line feminist: Dean reprints many disgustingly condescending, belittling, or outright misogynistic remarks from commentators both male and female. She untwists the tangled themes of gender politics and exposes the complex position of the female intellectual in other ways, too – whether by examining “the persistence of intrafeminine social competition” (it’s always noted when one of the women comments on another, favorably or unfavorably), or by taking her own shots at male writers she deems overrated or simply doesn’t like (Salinger, Mailer, Norman Podhoretz).

Sharp records, and creates, a lot of crossfire – intellectual, historical, literary – and while all of the women stand tall against it and within it, some stand taller. This is sometimes a function of Dean’s relative interest in the person, sometimes of that person’s palpable achievement, and sometimes of both. Dorothy Parker lives today mostly as a crafter of witty light verse; Dean makes it clear that not only her ambition but also her creative capacities were not of the first order. Yet she delivers a poignant sense of the woman, and of her decline. Some of the book’s keenest analysis is devoted to Rebecca West, a writer with whom I’m almost completely unfamiliar. Dean refers to West’s “painterly, chatty” style, observing that she “overwhelms you with her personality. Her work can be read as one long, run-on sentence punctuated only occasionally for want of money.” She assembles a fascinating chronicle of West’s adulterous relationship with H.G. Wells, reading her contemporaneous essays and reviews for emotional evidence. Arendt and McCarthy are treated as noble expeditioners of their own type – the first with her intense treatises on the totalitarian state and mind, the second with her seriocomic fictions about the lives and loves of thirties Vassar women.

Susan Sontag, in some ways the most adventurous (if hardly the most entertaining) of these writers, is the subject of perhaps the book’s most interesting chapter. “She wasn’t particularly worried about her status as a woman,” Dean surmises; indeed, all of her writer heroes were men, and she never felt constrained to champion women writers, or be championed as one. Dean gets at the mix of deep subjectivity and clinical distance in Sontag: “The ‘I’ of her work, her recognizable voice, is not fleshed out as a person . . . Her voice is a force of nature but one without any specifically personal experiences to report.” For some, this lack of relational intimacy makes her disagreeable, forbidding; for others it preserves a tension, a difficulty, that is and must be an aspect of “intellectualism,” if that despised word is to have any meaning at all. The Kael chapter, on the other hand, is a bit of a letdown. Dean is sensitive to every suggestion of the great film critic’s grappling with gender questions, including her often scornful comments about confessional art. But she’s much too soft on "Raising Kane," the long 1971 essay in which Kael downplayed Orson Welles’s contribution to the Citizen Kane screenplay in favor of Herman J. Mankiewicz’s, and for which it later emerged that Kael had avoided performing a researcher’s due diligence. (For that story, see Brian Kellow’s 2011 Kael biography, A Life in the Dark.) The interplay Dean sketches between Sontag and Kael – by far the dominant female critical voices of the sixties and seventies – cannot be, at essay length, as intensive or extensive as that found in Craig Seligman’s terrific Sontag and Kael (2004), but it still feels foreshortened, inadequate, inconclusive. (It’s also the cite of one of Dean’s few errors. “Neither wrote a word about the other except that one brief exchange in 1964,” she claims, quoting Kael’s response to Sontag’s landmark essay "Notes on 'Camp'"; in fact, Kael reviewed Sontag’s first film, Duet for Cannibals, in 1969 – a very brief notice with a few incisive lines that tell us more than a little about the distance between the two writers.)

Susan Sontag. (Photo: Getty)

The chapters on Joan Didion and Janet Malcolm (I cherish the journalism of both) are never short of absorbing, though they reach no peaks of transformative insight. In Malcolm’s case, what one takes away is the good account of her early career, her influences, and her covert playfulness; “the first appearance,” in a 1972 New Yorker article, “of the kind of Janet Malcolm reportage that would make her both revered and controversial”; and the apparent downbeat of the chapter’s ending. Renata Adler’s brilliance has always struck me as far less than met the eye, but Dean appraises her fairly and fully, catching both her strength and her weakness in the observation that she “rarely tells any kind of story, but amasses evidence for a thesis and bears down on the subject with bull terrier determination. Adler often feels more like a prosecutor than a storyteller.” The Nora Ephron essay is the book’s slightest – soft-edged and meandering, weak in its themes, with a not always convincing reading of personal meanings into the subject’s ephemeral journalism. A concluding reference to the “treacly films” Ephron wrote and/or directed later in her career brings things to a vague, shrugging close. Heartburn (1986), When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1999) constitute the work by which the vast majority of people know and remember Ephron; what implications does that fact have for the legacy of this sharp woman, or of sharp women generally in our time? Are Ephron’s smug, witty frivolities the Baby Boomer equivalent of Parker’s light verse – or do they lack even that substance? I wish Dean had asked these or similar questions, but here she fails her own mandate, finding nothing very sharp to say about a not very interesting writer.

To give the narrative continuity, Dean ends each section with a segueing reference to the subject of the next chapter. This is a nice gimmick, reminiscent of the overlapping dialogue that links scenes in an early Mike Nichols movie. But along with it go several entr’actes which put two or more of the focused subjects together, or a focused subject together with a woman not of the select group of ten (like McCarthy and Hellman); and while some of these are well-included, others are not. I’m not certain what purpose a brief interstice titled “West & Hurston” truly serves. The overlap is that Rebecca West and Zora Neale Hurston each covered, within a few years of each other, a racially charged murder trial (the former a South Carolina lynching, the latter the Florida trial of Ruby McCollum). But the two women neither met nor had any discernible influence on each other, and the fact of their taking similar reportorial assignments six years apart adds little if anything to the book’s themes. While it’s more than understandable that Dean would want to somehow represent the literary achievement of African-American women, this is a tenuous and tacked-on way of doing it.

But for the most part Sharp reads easily and cohesively, which is to say intuitively: what's there is there for a reason. Michelle Dean has written an exciting, thorough, argumentative, engaging work of critical history, and I can pay it no better compliment than to say that I was eager for it to end – simply so that I could go back and read, for the first time or the fifteenth, the women whose lives, minds, and works she has brought to newly sharpened life.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College(2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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