Not your girl gang: why do we try to connect female writers who have nothing in common?

Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion engineers a “cohort” of female writers as varied as Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt and Zora Neale Hurston.

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Despite its assertive subtitle and mostly chronological march of chapters, Michelle Dean’s book isn’t offering an argument, or the tracing of a tradition, but a series of biographical essays about 20th-century female writers, based in America if not always born there, whose work she wants to champion. Given that the subjects include a philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and a film reviewer, Pauline Kael, Dean cannot avoid conceding that their abilities varied in their “precise nature”, but she insists that they shared “the ability to write unforgettably”. As a criterion for entry, it’s on the subjective side. When Dean writes that racism prevented Zora Neale Hurston from being a “more widely recognised part of this cohort”, you can’t help reflecting that it is a cohort only in Dean’s head, and that if Hurston isn’t part of it – well, that’s really down to her.

Far from embracing the element of randomness, though, Dean expends a great deal of effort poring over moments of supposed correspondence and collision. She claims that Rebecca West, the novelist currently best-known for a 1,000-plus-page study of Yugoslavia, was “something like the English version” of the poet and wit Dorothy Parker – both were women writers “greatly celebrated” in their own time. (West grew bored with literary affairs “almost the same way Parker had grown bored with the New York scene”.) Pauline Kael disliked the work of Joan Didion, though both came from California. Didion wrote about political reporters; Nora Ephron wrote a novel and film (Heartburn) about her marriage to Carl Bernstein. We’re informed of the “beautiful coincidence” that West and Ephron were both named after Ibsen heroines. Even near-coincidences are granted a place on the record: Mary McCarthy “never met Parker, not really”. (She spotted her once, at a rally.)

Dean’s weightier comparisons obscure more than they enlighten. Kael is linked to Susan Sontag by her “advocacy of pop culture” – a description that tramples over complexities in its yearning to find common ground, or at the very least a chapter transition. It would be truer, if less tidy, to say that Sontag felt for a brief period that pop culture had to be confronted while Kael viewed it as a mostly guilty pleasure. Sontag’s early “Notes on Camp” showed a desire to explore popular culture as a subject, not to promote it as a cause. Kael was warier of film’s high-art pretensions, observing once that Robert Bresson – whose “spiritual style” Sontag had explored in an essay – was in the business of “cauterizing your funny bone”. But she preferred pulpy subject matter when it was treated in a knowing or poeticised way, as in the work of Robert Altman and Brian De Palma, and she was no more convinced than Sontag was by the claims advanced by Jean-Luc Godard – a director they both admired, if for different reasons – that the products of studio-era Hollywood had represented film at its zenith.

Even when portrayed in their own light, Dean’s characters appear straitjacketed in their supposed sharpness, or else trapped in a realm of institutions. Janet Malcolm isn’t concerned with doubting the “usefulness of writing journalism at all”, but with exploring the ways in which art, literature, psychoanalysis, the law, and her own reporting fail to do justice to human reality.

Ephron, we are told, “got her break” on the humour magazine Monocle, where her writing “caught the attention of the editors of the New York Post” and “caught the eye of the editors at Esquire”, and where she worked until being “poached by New York magazine”. Before long, even Dean grows impatient with the parade of finicky, featureless detail: “At some point she’d return to Esquire.”

Dean misses a real opportunity to present one of her subjects both in the context of another and in her own terms – Mary McCarthy, who was already accomplished and famous when she began her 25-year friendship with Hannah Arendt. The two had been acquaintances and occasional combatants in 1949 when, standing on a train platform, Arendt announced: “Let’s end this nonsense. We think too much alike.” It was, Dean writes, a “match made in intellectual heaven”, producing a correspondence that dealt with fiction, philosophy, fascism, morality, common sense. Unfortunately, none of this is even paraphrased.

The academic Deborah Nelson, in her more focused and cogent book Tough Enough, uses the same case-study structure to investigate what she calls “the aesthetics of moral hardness” – the willingness of various female writers (plus the photographer Diane Arbus) both to confront pain and to inflict it, a duality enabled by her chosen adjective. (“Sharp” is rather more blunt.) Evoking what she calls “one of the most vital intellectual friendships of the last century”, Nelson argues that McCarthy’s “somewhat obsessional concern for the integrity of sheer fact” was a direct response to Arendt’s preoccupation with what she called “factual truth”. Where Dean notes that in the mid-1950s Arendt visited McCarthy in Italy, where she was working, Nelson explains that the resulting books Venice Observed and The Stones of Florence were McCarthy’s favourites because “I was writing in my own voice”. If the voice was hers, the sensibility belonged to both of them. In a fascinating passage, Nelson explains that McCarthy loved Brunelleschi because he accepted the stubborn limits of his material but recoiled from Michelangelo, identifying something like the Italian origins of totalitarianism in his desire to submit reality to what she calls his “prehensile will”.

Nelson, working with a crew not only tighter than Dean’s – six, as opposed to 12 – but less extravagantly motley, is able to immerse the reader in the wartime and post-war reckoning with uncomfortable truths, at one point placing Arendt’s 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, against the background of America’s slothful recognition of the Holocaust. Dean, by creating an echo chamber of sharp women from across the century, only succeeds in cutting them from their real context. But then Sharp isn’t simply non-historical or unhistorical. It treats the past with patronage and even pity.

At first, it’s hard to work out Dean’s intentions, whether she wants to recover the past as it was, or if she’s doing something more baldly presentist. The book’s first chapter opens with reference to “the lodestar” that Dorothy Parker later became, and the Algonquin Round Table is called “storied” before anyone has had a chance to sit there, but elsewhere Dean tries to reinhabit original circumstances, and to summon intrigue, with descriptions like “the author of a new novel called Portnoy’s Complaint” (in fact, he was already famous as the author of Goodbye, Columbus, “Writing American Fiction” and much else besides – he was already just Philip Roth). Dean is fond of the presentist adjective par excellence, “forgotten”, along with relatives like “then-famous”. (Not that her grasp of such processes is especially strong: the 1968 film The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz, pronounced “completely forgotten”, is a favourite of Quentin Tarantino, and someone who believes that SN Behrman is on the dustheap – or, for that matter, that Kenneth Tynan served as theatre critic of the New Republic – is perhaps not ideally equipped to write a book concerned with mid-century American journalism.) Dean presents her own project, in Sharp, as a rescue-job, an act of revisionist retribution, explaining that the story she’s telling “has never been as well-known as it deserves to be”. But it’s crucial that the story is still quite well-known, that her subjects retain a degree of cultural capital, that their writing matters.

Occasionally Dean's conflicting messages – the past as mere prologue, the past as its own reality –  arrive at the same time, as when she introduces “a young editor named Norman Podhoretz”, his future lodestar-status concealed, while the magazine he edited, Commentary, is identified as “then-left-leaning”. That Dean cannot withhold the fact of later hawkishness, any more than she can resist talking about “the conservative Irving Kristol” even though he pops up during what she calls “a socialist phase”, provides one of the stronger clues to where her sympathies really lie – with her own worldview. Insofar as her subjects had shortcomings, it was their failure to agree in every way with “us” – showing ambivalence about feminism, for example, or openness to reactionary politics. Rebecca West’s “obsession with anti-communism”, ie her obsessive anti-communism, is deemed one of her “mistakes”, along with the inclination, when writing about a lynching trial, to express her horror in legal and human terms, rather than using the words “racism” and “prejudice”. Still, Dean declares, if her subjects weren’t always “right”, then at least they weren’t “wrong more often than they should have been” – a phrase that, in its mixture of condescension and illogic, neatly caps this brash yet rickety book. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic and a Man Booker Prize judge

Sharp: the Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
Michelle Dean
Fleet, 384pp, £20

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 29 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone