Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion seems like the perfect book for me — I like reading about women’s history, women writers, literary history, and criticism, and I’m a fan of many of the writers she discusses. Her ten main subjects are Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. Dean’s writing is lively and interesting, and she manages to be satisfyingly thorough in a relatively short book by focusing on the women’s writing careers rather than telling their whole biography, although you do get a sense of the shape of their lives. She points out connections among the women — similarities among their lives and the ways they knew each other — and although I found these less compelling than I expected, it didn’t matter because their stories as individuals were enough.
I kept thinking as I read about the fact that all Dean’s examples are white women. She does discuss Zora Neale Hurston briefly, but she’s not one of her featured subjects. She addresses the whiteness of the book briefly in her introduction, saying that because of racism women of color weren’t able to achieve the public status as critics that her chosen white women did. Her project is to look at women with successful careers as critics, and during her time period (basically the entire 20th century), whiteness was a requirement.
This argument makes a certain amount of sense, and I don’t believe it’s helpful to say that authors should have taken on different projects than they did, but, but, but … I would have liked to see more discussion of the racism that made this situation possible, and whether this changed at all as the century went on, at the very least. But even more so I wonder whether taking on a project that focuses on white people only is really a good idea. I can see shifting the terms of the project slightly to include Hurston (and maybe someone like Audre Lorde?) or perhaps extending it further into the 21st century to include Roxane Gay, for example. It’s easy for me to say, as someone who did not write this book, that her project should have been broader, but, as a reader, I can say that I felt the near-total exclusion of voices of color to be unsettling.
So I guess it’s not the perfect book for me, in the end, but I did love reading about Mary McCarthy, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm, and seeing them in a different context than I’d seen them in before. And I liked learning more about the other writers whom I’m not so familiar with. I learned a lot about what it was like to be a critic in the 20th century and how tough it was to be an ambitious woman with talent. Things have changed for sure in the early part of the 21st century, but they have not changed nearly enough.