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.
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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.”
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“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.