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PS Picks: Michelle Dean on Women in Literature

PS Picks is a selection of the best things that the magazine's staff and contributors are reading, watching, or otherwise paying attention to in the worlds of art, politics, and culture.
Joan Didion on March 29th, 2007, in New York City.

Joan Didion on March 29th, 2007, in New York City.

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Michelle Dean on Women in Literature: It is rare to come upon a work of literary scholarship that also reads like a page-turner. This month we've somehow been blessed with at least two such books, including Leslie Jamison's The Recovering and now Michelle Dean's Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. Dean's book offers a series of interlocking biographical sketches of women throughout the 20th century who carved spaces for themselves in the male-dominated literary scenes of London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and beyond, including Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and Janet Malcolm. As a time-lapse portrait of the American republic of letters, it's both dishy and deeply thoughtful, as Dean (on the strength of admirably deep research in the archives) recounts how each woman made it in the world in spite of the vigorous forces that tried to stop them—sometimes including each other.

The biographies are finely turned and openly protective of their subjects; Dean's task is to reclaim these women from mythos and bathos alike, and the result is no less persuasive for the affection and tolerance with which she treats their occasional foibles. Still, there is nothing soft or sentimental here. The motif of sharpness is neatly pervasive in the crisp prose for which Dean is known; in the slyness, the occasional cut. "Reviewers always admitted she had a certain perceptiveness, a chiseled style," Dean writes of Mary McCarthy. "But they did not like what she saw when she looked at the world, or at least they found her somehow impolite for recording it in prose." A similar bind, Dean suggests, awaited many of her subjects: "If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do," Rebecca West once said; "first, not be too good; second, die young, what an edge Katherine Mansfield has on all of us; third, commit suicide like Virginia Woolf. To go on writing and writing well just can't be forgiven."

While some of these women became lifelong friends (e.g. Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy), others used their sharpness against each other. Dean records all these instances with a temperate nuance, and it's the sort of nuance we could probably use more of among liberal and leftist discussions of solidarity in 2018. As Dean writes: "We're all stuck with each other, stuck with the history of those who've preceded us. You might make your own way, but you always do it in the streams and eddies forded by others, no matter how much you may personally like or dislike them, agree or disagree with them, wish that you were able to transcend this whole situation."