Swept up in the wave of resignations and mea culpa that rolled through the literary establishment at the height of the #metoo movement late last year was Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. Stein stepped down from his post on December 6, 2017, amid an internal investigation into his treatment of female employees and writers. After he was tapped for the job in 2010, Stein had garnered media buzz as the Paris Review’s “new playboy,” according to a 2011 New York Times profile, a fixture of the glamorous, boozy New York literary life hired to reboot the magazine’s cool quotient. It turned out otherwise.
But in the midst of this very public housecleaning, there emerged a curious erasure that was, if less spectacular than Stein’s ouster, perhaps even more telling as a measure of the uphill work women routinely face in the literary establishment. For Stein, widely cited in the media coverage of the scandal as the third editor in the history of the Paris Review, was in fact its fourth editor. This calculus left out Brigid Hughes, hired as George Plimpton’s successor in 2004 and dismissed just one year later.
How did this error manage to slip through the fact-checkers, become enshrined in print as the official history of a leading literary magazine? A.N. Devers, a London-based novelist and rare book dealer, provided an answer. “I’m going to show you how a woman is erased from her job,” she announced in a thread posted to Twitter on December 7, 2017, the day following Stein’s departure. Devers backtracked through the New York Times’s coverage of the Paris Review leadership, from Hughes’ dismissal in 2005 (a move the board’s female members met by resigning in protest), through the hiring of Philip Gourevitch, through the latter’s replacement in 2010 by Stein. The Times article announcing the changing of the guard failed to mention Hughes’s tenure, an omission that was sealed into the historical record one year later with the running of the “playboy” profile, declaring Stein “only the third to hold the title in the magazine’s 58-year history, and the second to follow George Plimpton, himself a legendary New York social figure.” According to Devers, even after being called out on the omission, the Times failed to retract or amend the error.
It is these kinds of erasures that Michelle Dean’s new book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, is meant to remedy. Focusing on the self-styled “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s, but radiating out to include both forerunners and inheritors, Dean documents the intersecting lives and works of ten twentieth-century American literary women from Dorothy Parker to Janet Malcolm. None of the writers on her list can be said, properly speaking, to have slipped through the cracks of literary and cultural history. And yet, as Dean notes, most sweeping histories of modern American letters continue to frame it as a story dominated by men, with women cast in walk-on roles. “The longer I looked at the work these women laid out before me,” she confesses in the preface, “the more puzzling I found it that anyone could look at the literary and intellectual history of the twentieth century and not center women in it.”
Dean’s book is a riposte to this systematic decentering, providing a counter-narrative to the well-worn tales of American literary critical fathers and sons. Along the way, Sharp offers a catalogue of the complex strategies twentieth-century women have adopted, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to navigate a man’s world: to stave off, precisely, being “erased from their job.”
Sharp is divided into fourteen chapters, one devoted to each of Dean’s ten principal subjects individually, with the remaining four chronicling their complex interrelationships. Dean explains that she gathered the women in her study, “under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp.” Some, like Dorothy Parker, were sharp by temperament. Her innate “inability to accept other people’s self-images” at face value, Dean suggests, “haunted her as a critic.” She was dismissed from her post as theater reviewer for Vanity Fair after bruising one too many Broadway egos. Nonetheless she persisted; Parker would spring back to helm The New Yorker’s “Constant Reader” column in the 1920s. Others profiled in the book viewed sharpness as a moral imperative, like Pauline Kael who, according to Dean, believed her role as critic demanded that she “run roughshod over the politics of reputation.” Still others were, if not motivated by it, at least attentive to the promotional uses of sharp criticism. Nora Ephron, who once famously quipped that to the writer, ‘everything is copy,’ would turn her “willingness to anger the people she knew… [into a] professional asset.”
The adjective “sharp” could be bestowed as a compliment, suggesting these were women with wit, brains, smarts. A number wrote manifestos calling for a more robustly critical criticism, bemoaning the milquetoast flavor pervading modern literary reviews (“a chorus of weak cheers… that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger,” Rebecca West charged in a 1914 essay appropriately titled “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”). In this case, sharpness connoted intellectual rigor.
But more frequently, as Dean documents, “sharp” was lodged as a complaint by male writers who claimed that these women’s cutting, acid, venomous (choose your painful adjective) prose belied a failure of femininity, in the best of cases, and a failure of critical seriousness, in the worst. Whether they came to sharpness by temperament or calculated choice, these women’s style provided ample fodder for those eager to dismiss or dilute their seriousness. While declaring Mary McCarthy’s novel The Company They Keep “very serious,” Alfred Kazin went on to dampen the compliment by suggesting the book’s prose was “as maliciously female as one chorus girl’s comments on another.” Pauline Kael’s 1963 take-down of the boys club of “auteur” film critics was met with an acid rebuttal from Movie magazine targeting her “fanatical feminism” as grounds for a blanket dismissal of her views: “When Miss Kael says that there are no female auteur critics, she is right. She could have gone further: there are, alas, no female critics.”
In addition to being trivialized as “catty” or “hysterical,” these women were frequently savaged for their lack of manners—a critique from which male writers were, naturally, exempt. Lionel Abel, a member of the New York intellectual set, famously referred to Hannah Arendt as “Hannah Arrogant” behind her back— an epithet she earned for daring to wade into the traditionally masculine fields of philosophy and politics. When Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays appeared in print, a Washington Post reviewer sniffed that its author was, “hardly a likable person”; her voice “rasps and is rude and strident,” they complained. In the highly gendered responses to these women’s voices, sharpness bled into shrill, and commitment tipped over into crazy.
Dean meticulously traces the intricate webs, both institutional and personal, that bound these women together and kept them afloat. McCarthy and Sontag overlapped at the Partisan Review and were frequently lumped together as critics. “I hear you’re the new me,” an apocryphal story has McCarthy quipping to Sontag when they were first introduced at a literary soiree. McCarthy and Arendt, after a spat upon first meeting, eventually made up one day when forced to wait on a subway platform together, and were lifelong friends ever after. McCarthy delivered the eulogy at Arendt’s funeral, and painstakingly pieced together her friend’s notes for posthumous publication as The Life of the Mind. Not all of the connections Dean unearths are this substantial. She also records these critics’ references to one another that crop up in passing, littered through letters and interviews, such as aging silent-film star Louise Brooks’s comment to Pauline Kael upon receiving a copy of her latest book: “‘Your picture on the dust cover made me think of Dorothy Parker when she was young in a moment of happiness.’” Such off-hand remarks suggest that even when they hadn’t met face-to-face, these women haunted each other’s mental universes. They were icons: whether to be smashed or modeled mattered little. They measured for one another, even if unconsciously, the terrain already covered, and that still left to conquer.
Conspicuously absent from this milieu are women writers of color— an absence Dean addresses, and that is made painfully clear when, in Chapter Three, Zora Neale Hurston makes a cameo appearance that is most notable for its brevity. Where the other writers weave in and out of each other’s lives with predictable regularity and ease, Hurston never penetrated their chummy circle. Dean brings her up in the context of Rebecca West’s 1947 coverage for The New Yorker of the Willie Earle lynching trial in South Carolina. West was shocked by the lynching in the standard way New York liberals always claimed to be shocked by racist violence in the South. But the resulting piece failed to probe the dynamics of American race relations in any substantial way, and Dean notes that West’s offense at the proceedings was “an offense taken on the part of humanity” rather than on the part of African Americans specifically.
Zora Neale Hurston would have been a better choice to report on the trial. But black writers, while their novels were covered by major white literary publications in a tip of the hat to “the Negro problem,” were scrupulously excluded from these same forums in the role of critic, Dean writes. Hurston protested this exclusion. “The fact that there is no demand for incisive and full-dress stories about Negroes above the servant class is indicative of something of vast importance to this nation,” she wrote in a 1950 editorial, entitled “What White Publishers Won’t Print,” for The Negro Digest. The protest was, of course, a cry in the wilderness, unlikely to be read by the very white publishers who were in a position to do something about it. Hurston’s double erasure— as a woman, as an African American— was not an erasure the white women critics in Dean’s study were equipped to, or even particularly interested in, addressing. When Hurston died in 1961, she was buried in Florida in an unmarked grave in The Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery.
The critics in Dean’s study were not always friends. They could tongue-lash one another just as well as outside targets. Pauline Kael criticized one of Joan Didion’s novels as “ridiculously swank,” claiming to have read it “between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” And Kael was flogged in turn by fledgling critic Renata Adler, who in the pages of the New York Review of Books baldly declared the former’s collection of film reviews, When the Lights Go Down, “worthless.” Feminine solidarity, in other words, was not their strong suit.
This contrarian streak is evident, Dean emphasizes, in her subjects’ general hostility to second-wave feminism. By and large, they viewed feminism as reductive, essentialist, and overly emotional. Arendt was perhaps the most cutting, declaring Women’s Liberation “not serious,” and opining flatly that the “woman problem” had never posed a problem for her (she had “always just done what she liked to do,” she once remarked airily. Didion, Sontag, and Ephron shared her skepticism, with Ephron the most tolerant of the three. Still, even she complained of the pressure she felt to review feminist writers positively which, if it made for “good politics,” decidedly did not make for “good criticism.” Knee-jerk group allegiance worked against truth and honesty, Ephron insisted— a sentiment clearly shared by others in Dean’s group.
Dean is clear-eyed in treating her subjects’ ambivalent relationship to feminism, and honest about the delicacy of her own position as a feminist marshalling these women’s stories in the name of a more gender-inclusive history. (At one point, she imagines Hannah Arendt rolling over in her grave were she to guess at her inclusion in such a book). Yet she defends her choice of subjects, noting she was troubled by the number of feminist critics she encountered during her research who “wanted to cut these women out of history” for failing to turn their talents “to the explicit support of feminism.” This impulse to erase dissenters, she asserts, would be an error. In what comes across as a model of sense and sensitivity in the context of our fractious twenty-first century efforts to construct a workable feminist practice, Dean agrees that while feminism is “supposed to be about sisterhood,” it is also possible for sisters to argue— even to the point of estrangement. “It is not only commonality that defines us,” she remarks in closing. “There is room, in this deep ambivalence about and even hostility toward feminism, to take away a feminist message.”
Within the first few pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion narrates with clinical precision the evening her husband died, of a heart attack, as they were sitting down together for dinner. At the hospital, after his body has been discretely tucked away behind a curtain, she overhears a social worker telling the on-call doctor that he needn’t mince words, as she is “a cool customer.” The phrase is one that Didion retains, bemused by what it might imply: that she has failed in her new role of grieving widow? That she is deficient in the art of feeling?
If “sharp” women fail at femininity by evincing improper or inappropriate feeling, even more egregious are those who fail to feel at all: those who manifest not sharp edges but, to quote Emily Dickinson, “a Quartz contentment, like a stone.” It is this latter quality in the work of female critics that forms the heart of Deborah Nelson’s study, Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil. Dean’s and Nelson’s lists of cutting women overlap, and both center their studies loosely on the post-war New York intellectual scene. But where Dean’s project involves mapping the social milieu of literary New York in order to trace her writers’ interconnected passages through it, Nelson’s work is more theoretical. What critics often deride as the “tough,” unfeeling, or indifferent tone of these writers’ prose, Nelson argues is in fact a conscious ethical choice. A critic for the Washington Post once complained of Sontag that, “there is nothing in this book to indicate that she cares very much what we think of her tone and manners,” and he was absolutely right: these writers’ eschewed thinking about the readers’ “feelings,” not as a matter or oversight, but as a matter of principle.
These artists wrote (or photographed, in the case of Arbus) against the cultural grain for at least two reasons. First, women writers from the nineteenth century onward had been associated with the sentimental style, using emotion in their work in order to bring about social change. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a tear-jerking depiction of the evils of slavery, was intended as political protest, and was largely successful. An apocryphal story tells of Abraham Lincoln greeting the authoress at the White House as, “the little woman whose book started the great war.” If sappiness was somewhat out of style by the 1950s and 60s, the basic premise of sentimentalism was not: sympathy, compassion, and identification with the pain of others was the key to healing collective wounds, as well as to bringing about political and social change. The nascent feminist and civil rights movements, Nelson suggests, looked to leverage such “bonds of feeling and group identification” with the experience of pain in order to bring about social change.
The women artists in Nelson’s study quite simply refused to accept the efficacy of sympathy as a political wedge. In doing so, they ran afoul not only of the gendered conventions for protest, but also the ambient culture of therapeutic healing and shared feeling as the road to progress. These women confronted painful subjects, but refused to do so from the point of view of empathy. In bucking this liberal imperative, they committed an unpardonable sin— for which they were frequently excommunicated, by leftists and feminists alike.
Perhaps the most notorious example of critical heartlessness— which Dean treats at length in her book as well— is the 1963 publication of Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Arendt’s report on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a principal architect of the Nazi Final Solution, caused an uproar in the critical community for what Gershom Scholem called the “heartless, frequently almost malicious or sneering tone” with which she treated the topic. Her characterization of Eichmann as almost comically ordinary and “thoughtless” rather than evil incarnate was read by many as levity, a refusal to take the suffering of his Jewish victims at its full measure.
Yet what others diagnosed as a failure of feeling in Arendt was in fact a conscious choice to exile sentiment from politics. Arendt’s prodigious body of political philosophy and criticism is, in Nelson’s analysis, one long meditation on the dangers of bringing feeling into the public sphere. For Arendt, political rhetoric which shifts attention away from an event to feelings about the event is liable to lead to precisely the kind of murderous “thoughtlessness” she diagnoses in Eichmann. For Eichmann is so dangerous not because he is unthinkably evil, but because he fails to think at all: in the place of imagining plurality, the possibility of other points of view, he substitutes cliché, oceanic “feeling,” commitment to a utopian ideal that necessarily runs roughshod over any fact (or person) whose particularity resists it. “The answer for her,” Nelson concludes, “is to refuse to translate the horrors into emotion rather than into language.”
The other writers in Nelson’s study follow a similar logic, insisting that the saturation of public life by “feeling” and spectacles of suffering ironically leads to numbness and inaction rather than a true understanding of the sources of suffering. Sontag included rigorous critiques of sympathy as a useful response to art in her writing on photography and on the Vietnam War. Sympathy, she claimed, was a way of stroking our egos (we congratulate ourselves on our capacity to feel for others, or “feeling good about one’s capacities for feeling bad,” as Nelson writes) while sanctioning political inaction and immobility. The “moral drama of helplessness” is intensely seductive, she argues—and for that reason must be resisted. It is only by exiling feeling from the portrayal of suffering, eliminating the possibility for a sham ethics of what Nelson calls “consolatory distraction [or] moral vanity,” that a writer is true to her subject and to the lived, irreducible experience of pain.
If Dean’s study is an effort to rectify a certain erasure of critical women from the annals of American literary history, Nelson’s project is also, at some level, a work of restitution. She resurrects a strain of distinctly feminine political engagement that, in refusing the gendered polarity of masculine stoicism and feminine feeling, quite simply failed to register as a tradition at all. The fact that these women critics so obviously fell short of expected modes of feminine ethical response—soft, sympathetic, emotionally expressive—not only brought censure upon them individually, but contributed to the historical erasure of emotional detachment as a legitimate alternative to the politics of empathy.
Finally, Nelson’s study clarifies a question left open by Dean’s book: why Sontag, Arendt, Didion and McCarthy were so lukewarm on feminism. Their commitment to the concrete, the individual, the “fact” made them suspicious of abstract principles generally, especially group identity or what today would be called “identity politics.” They could only see such blanket categories as, in Ephron’s words, constricting and “dishonest.” They saw their fierce commitment to the value of the individual and particularity as a bulwark against the political and historical dangers of abstraction— not to mention the aesthetic pitfalls of didacticism.
These women fought, tooth and nail, against the harassment, wrath, dismissal, and erasure that waited for them around every corner as they sought to secure a place for themselves in male-dominated literary institutions. They were subjected to this treatment because they belonged to a class of humans long held incapable of critical genius. And it was because, perhaps, their membership in this class (“women” writers) had so little to do, in their own minds, with what they were capable of or who they were in the fullness of their humanity, that they were reluctant to use their successes as a political lever on behalf of other women. To do so would be to acknowledge and even reinforce the very group-based prejudice they felt was so arbitrary a barrier to their own voices being heard. It should be possible to do both.