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'Sharp' Is A Dinner Party You Want To Be At

What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."

Dean's literary bash is as stimulating and insightful as its roster of guests. She not only encapsulates their biographies and achievements with remarkable concision, but also connects the dots between them. Her survey charts a through-line between these trailblazing writers who "openly defied gendered expectations" and "came up in a world that was not eager to hear women's opinions about anything." She flags intriguing points of connection and friction in their attitudes towards feminism, communism, and various male artists, including J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen. Revisiting the ugly lawsuit between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, she provides a contrast with the uncommonly close friendship between McCarthy and Arendt. Several notable contemporaries — like Zora Neale Hurston, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Doris Lessing — don't get their due, but Dean manages to shoehorn in a few mentions.

Like Elif Batuman's The Possessed, Sharp makes literary criticism accessible and lively. The book's topicality, combined with Dean's astute analyses of her subjects' lives and vinegar-sharp wit, should appeal to more than literary wonks. Unlike Batuman, Dean — winner of the National Book Critics Circle's 2016 Balakian citation for excellence in reviewing — stays out of the picture. And while she appreciates the cleverness of lines like Parker's memorable caption for Vogue — "Brevity is the soul of lingerie" — there's nothing jocular in her general approach.

Striking similarities emerge among Dean's chosen ten. Seven were at least part Jewish (including McCarthy, through her maternal grandmother). Four were born abroad, four in California. Four studied philosophy. Six had multiple marriages (McCarthy leading the pack with four husbands). Several, including Susan Sontag, gave birth at a young age or raised only children as single mothers. Another common driver: Five lost their fathers early. When West's dissolute dad left his wife and three adolescent daughters broke, "It taught her an unforgettable lesson about the necessity of self-sufficiency," Dean writes. "You could not depend on men."

Though seven of these women ended up writing fiction, many broke into print by reviewing books, theatre, movies — and other reviewers. They were fearlessly, caustically outspoken. Nineteen-year-old West, who "had a knack for choosing targets," went after H.G. Wells in a scathing review of his novel, Marriage. Dean comments wryly: "The episode marked possibly the only time in history that future lovers have met when one gave the other an abysmal book review." McCarthy, too, tested "the conventions of reviewing propriety" with a "note of wickedness" in her takedowns, which often came across as harsh or haughty. Pauline Kael, supporting herself and her daughter, "was brash, but she was also precise," Dean writes, "insisting that the only principle worth defending was pleasure."

Dean, no wimp at strong assertions herself, makes it clear that these women didn't make their names by pussy-footing or pandering. Kael, she says, "knew that to write with authority entailed projecting extreme, even superhuman confidence." Arendt was "relentlessly self-confident," to the point where she was attacked — by male critics, in particular — as "Hannah Arrogant" after the publication of her groundbreaking 1951 manifesto, The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Dean, no wimp at strong assertions herself, makes it clear that these women didn't make their names by pussy-footing or pandering.

In Parker's case, insecurity was her bête-noir. Renata Adler, on the other hand, "a relentlessly analytical writer," was seemingly born with an "ability to offer an opinion with godlike certainty." And Ephron, Dean notes, was frequently ferocious to the point of malevolence: "Over the years, her willingness to anger the people she knew, to attack them the same way Kael or West or any of her predecessors had, would become a professional asset."

Along with questions about self-confidence, niceness versus meanness, and where these writers stood on feminism and sisterhood (not surprisingly, being congenital outsiders and adamant individualists, they were mostly on the sidelines), Dean considers the thorny ethics and ramifications of this sort of outspoken gonzo journalism. Ephron lived by her screenwriter mother's credo, "Everything is copy." Didion put it somewhat differently: "Writers are always selling somebody out." Malcolm was attacked for impugning the honor of journalists in the opening line of her fascinating 1989 book, The Journalist and the Murderer: "Any journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

All of which puts me in mind of Nietzsche's famous declaration: "A common error: having the courage of one's convictions. Rather, it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one's convictions." Sharp is a wonderful celebration of some truly gutsy, brilliant women.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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