Women Intellectuals and the Art of the Withering Quip

24 April 2018

From The Paris Review:

“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do,” the British writer and journalist Rebecca West writes to a friend in 1952. “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.” West, ignoring her own advice, neither died prematurely nor blunted the fineness of her writing. As a young woman, she made her name with witty, digressive book reviews that were often wonderfully cutting. (On Henry James: “He splits hairs until there are no longer any hairs to split, and the mental gesture becomes merely the making of agitated passes over a complete and disconcerting baldness.”) She also wrote several novels and covered world events for prestigious magazines, including the trial of the English fascist William Joyce and the 1947 lynching of Willie Earle.

. . . .

The literary critic Michelle Dean’s new book of the same name, a cultural history-cum-group biography, examines the lives and careers of ten sharp women, among them Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker, Renata Adler, Hannah Arendt, and Zora Neale Hurston. What unites this disparate group, Dean claims, is the ability “to write unforgettably.”

. . . .

“The longer I looked at the work these women laid out before me,” Dean writes, “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 centering, or recentering, is both deeply researched and uncommonly engrossing. Indeed, Sharp’s pacing and wealth of anecdote compel one to consume the book like a novel. Many of the book’s satisfactions arise from the depictions of the incestuous, fiercely competitive beau monde these women inhabited. There is a delicious pleasure in reading about the stars and bit players of the fabled “New York intellectuals” of the 1940s—men and women alike—and their petty spats and rivalries that lasted for days or for decades.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review and here’s a link to Sharp by Michelle Dean

That would be a good thing

16 April 2018

That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment.

Dorothy Parker

Writing in the Public Eye, These Women Brought the 20th Century Into Focus

16 April 2018
Comments Off on Writing in the Public Eye, These Women Brought the 20th Century Into Focus

From Smithsonian:

“So there you are” read the kicker on Dorothy Parker’s first, somewhat hesitant review as the newly appointed theatre critic for Vanity Fair. An exploration into musical comediesthe article ran 100 years ago this month—a full two years before American women had the right to vote, when female voices in the public sphere were few and far between. It wouldn’t take long, just a few more articles, for Parker’s voice to transform into the confident, piercing wit for which she’s now famous.

In her new book, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (April 10, Grove Atlantic), author Michelle Dean mixes biography, history and criticism to examine how female intellects and critics of the 20th century, like Parker, carved out a space for themselves at a time when women’s opinions weren’t entirely welcome in the national conversation. What drew readers to these women, and what sometimes what repelled them, was their sharpness. As Dean described in an interview, it’s a tone that proved “most successful at cutting through a male-dominated atmosphere of public debate.”

Dedicating individual chapters to each of the ten women she profiles, and a few to illustrate their overlap, Dean lays out a constellation of political thinkers and cultural critics. Often, these women are seen as separate from one another, but the book puts them in conversation with each other. After all, several of the women “knew each other or had personal connections, or wrote about the same things at the same times, or often reviewed each other,” Dean said. Parker leads the pack because, as Dean explained, she was “somebody everybody had to define themselves against…the type of writer that they represent wouldn’t exist without her.”

The role of the 20th century public intellectual to shape political discourse, and that of the critic to define and assess the national culture was primarily dominated by men, from Saul Bellow to Dwight MacDonald to Edmund Wilson. The women Dean covers used their intellect to stake out a place for themselves in the conversation and on the pages of major magazines like The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books where the American public first got to know them. These publications offered the women of Sharp a place to explore and defend their ideas, including Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil,” inspired by her reporting on the trial of Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann and the concept of “camp” aesthetics, first codified by Susan Sontag in the Partisan Review. They critiqued the merits of each other’s work—in the New York Review of Books, Renata Adler tore apart Pauline Kael’s film criticism—and inspired new writers—a young Kael remembered being struck by the protagonist of Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Company She Keeps. Ultimately, these women influenced the conversation on topics that ranged from politics, film, photography, psychoanalysis to feminism, to name just a few.

Link to the rest at Smithsonian

Five Famous Writers Who Stood Up To Write

1 November 2017

From The Mission:

Anne Lamott — the author of, among other books, Bird by Bird — once tweeted about the writing process: “How to write: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Just take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair.” Lamott is one of our favorites around here; few authors have captured better the feelings and thoughts of a writer as they’re going about their craft. And her quip about putting your butt in the chair has an important antecedent: It was the legendary poet and wit Dorothy Parker who said, “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.” (Parker was also famous for the line: “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”)

But what about those of us who get our best thoughts standing up, not sitting down? Well there’s important models for us too, writers who chose to do their writing while on their feet. Here are five writers who took their butts out of their chairs to get their work done:

. . . .

Ernest Hemingway

That’s right: the Papa himself wrote standing up. By some accounts, he borrowed this from his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins. A Movable Feast was written at a stand-up desk in his home in Havana. As one account has it:

“In Ernest’s room there was a large desk covered with stacks of letters, magazines, and newspaper clippings, a small sack of carnivores’ teeth, two unwound clocks, shoehorns, an unfilled pen in an onyx holder, a wood carved zebra, warthog, rhino and lion in single file, and a wide-assortment of souvenirs, mementos and good luck charms. He never worked at the desk. Instead, he used a stand up work place he had fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed. His portable typewriter was snugged in there and papers were spread along the top of the bookcase on either side of it. He used a reading board for longhand writing.”

The Paris Review also reported: “A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu — the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.”

Winston Churchill

It would have been enough for Churchill to have a full life in politics — but he was also the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Many of those descriptions were written while upright. This wasn’t a side pursuit for Churchill either: over the course of a full and varied career, he also found the time to write 43 books in addition to hundreds of speeches. As he once said about writing, “It was great fun writing a book. One lived with it. It became a companion.”

Link to the rest at The Mission

Behind Bars: 61 Poets Who Went To Jail

26 October 2017

From My Poetic Side:

While freedom of speech is generally promoted today, this wasn’t always the case, and a lot of poets have caused a stir with their unfiltered approach. Controversial topics and unfavourable connections have landed many poets in hot water, so much so that a few of them have ended up behind bars because of it. Of course, there are a number of poets that have gone to jail for reasons that aren’t so closely related to their craft, such as throwing a brick through a police station window! Below, we take a look at 61 poets who went to jail in further detail…

. . . .

1. Adam Mickiewicz

The Polish poet was arrested in 1823 and exiled into Russia for his part in the Philomaths, which was an organisation Mickiewicz set up with friends in 1817. The group discussed romanticist ideas, which were banned by the Russian Empire at the time.

. . . .

6. Brendan Behan

Widely regarded as one of the best Irish poets of all time, Behan was arrested at the age of 16 when he joined the IRA and embarked on an unauthorised solo mission to England. He was found in possession of explosives, with intent to blow up the Liverpool Docks, which led to him spending three years in Hollesley Bay borstal.

. . . .

10. Charlotte Smith

Smith went to debtors’ prison because her husband was sent there. It was in prison that she began to write her first work, Elegiac Sonnets. The publication of the poems was so successful that she was able to buy her way out of prison. In the end, her family moved to Dieppe in France so they could avoid being hounded by creditors.

. . . .

 14. Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker was arrested for her role in activism when she took part in a demonstration in Boston.

. . . .

20. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was lucky to escape death after being arrested in 1849 for belonging to a literary group that discussed books that were critical of Tsarist Russia. These books were banned at the time, which lead Dostoyevsky to being sentence to death, although this was commuted at the last moment. Instead, he served in a Siberian prison camp for four years, after which he spent six years doing compulsory military service in exile.

. . . .

29. John Bunyan

The Puritan preacher was arrested numerous times for doing exactly that – preaching. It resulted in him being sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 1661. John Bunyan: Prisoner for Christ was published in 2004.

. . . .

36. Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo received the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. He was serving an 11-year sentence for inciting subversion of state power. He received the Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.’

37. Marcus Garvey

Garvey served several stints in prison, including a five-year sentence for mail fraud. During his time in jail, he was cited by a prison guard for insolence, which resulted in him being reprimanded and receiving a warning.

Link to the rest at My Poetic Side and thanks to Julian for the tip.

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