Book of the week
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
Michelle Dean’s new book could so easily have been a group catfight, said Maureen Corrigan in The Wall Street Journal. She has chosen, after all, to profile 10 women writers known for their strong opinions, and “there are so many stores to tell, so much bad behavior to revel in, and so many zingers to quote.” When Mary McCarthy met a young Susan Sontag at a 1964 party, she cut the upstart down to size by saying she smiled too much to be a seasoned New Yorker. Pauline Kael once wrote of a Joan Didion novel that she “read it between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” But instead of inviting us to gorge on pure dish, “Dean has pulled off a much rarer achievement”: She’s written an “entertaining and erudite” cultural history that uses the lives, work, and disagreements of her protagonists to illuminate how much we owe them.
Many readers will question the exact makeup of Dean’s all-star lineup, said Laura Jacobs in The New York Times. Why, for example, is Zora Neale Hurston a mere sideline character while Dorothy Parker gets the honor of the book’s first full profile? But, “it’s Dean’s party,” and “she’s invited the sharps she most admires”—10 women known foremost as critics, observers, or critical thinkers. Dean, who herself is an award-winning critic for The New Republic, chides her laureates here and there for their lesser work, but she doesn’t fully rise to the challenge she’s set herself. Her writing “can get too loosely conversational,” and she avoids engaging on matters that demand her opinion. Nora Ephron was known as a fearless memoirist and sentimental Hollywood screenwriter, for example, yet Dean never attempts to explain the split persona.
Not that Dean routinely shies from argument, said Lindsay Zoladz in TheRinger.com. At a time when tweets have become the prime currency of critical dialogue and too many women feel pressured to express gender solidarity with substance-free “likes,” Dean wants to celebrate women who have insisted on their right to nuanced disagreement. We too easily simplify Didion or Parker or even Hannah Arendt when we canonize them. Not Dean: “The greatest justice she does to these women is to take them down off their modern pedestals and let them argue with one another. That fighting spirit makes her book well worth reading.”