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The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

8 May 2018

From The Guardian:

In recent years, the group biography has become a spirited mainstay of the publishing landscape: a means both of revisiting and reinterpreting already familiar times, people and places, and of bringing together between hard covers lives that might not be deserving of an individual doorstop. In Sharp, though, Michelle Dean has assembled not so much a group as a small crowd: her book, with its title that brings to mind suddenly puckered lips, has the feeling of a cocktail party at which several people drink too much, nearly everyone talks too loudly, and no one really likes anyone else. Through this gathering, she wanders, ashtray in one hand, dishcloth in the other. Dean relishes her guests’ bad behaviour – you might call her a little starstruck – but only to a degree. As the evening goes on, she will sometimes find herself apologising for them, these women who are so clever and talented, and yet so madly competitive, so stubbornly reluctant to attach the word “feminist” to their neon-bright names.

. . . .

Most began as journalists, making an art, as Dean’s subtitle has it, of “having an opinion”; some then went on to write acclaimed novels, and other kinds of books. Most of their names are well known: Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, Rebecca West. Others, at least for British readers, may be less familiar: Janet Malcolm, whose singular, often controversial interviews appeared in the New Yorker; Pauline Kael, once the same magazine’s acerbic film critic; Renata Adler, the reporter whose home was also there until she put the literary equivalent of a bomb under her career. Dean gives each one about the same amount of attention, although it’s clear that she enjoys the company of some more than others. The playwright Lillian Hellman and the novelist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, however, she collides with so fleetingly, they appear before the reader like gatecrashers or, more likely, additions to the guest list so embarrassingly last minute she can hardly bear to do much more than pour them their first sidecar.

What unites them, besides their trade and their talent? Dean talks, in her preface, of their remarkable achievements in a world that “was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”; of the way they roundly defied expectations. But there’s also the adjective of her title: sharp. People did not always respond favourably to the “sting” of their words. What would have seemed daring and deeply smart coming from a man appeared only haughty, inappropriate and unkind when served up by a woman.

. . . .

Didion, in her tiny dresses, her wrists like clay pipes, was just so much surface and “swank”. Dean, a journalist herself, sympathises with all this; her book – though these are my words, not hers – is for any woman who has ever silenced a dinner table by being just a little too quick, too knowing, too mocking. Am I allowed to say that I have more than once done just that? Maybe I am.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

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2 Comments to “The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion”

  1. Yet another article plugging Dean’s book? I read an excerpt on Pauline Kael and was unimpressed. The women who Dean profiles are hardly obscure and have been written about extensively; Dean’s not bringing anything new to the table.

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