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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

Non-Fiction

12 Comments to “Women Intellectuals and the Art of the Withering Quip”

  1. Sadly it seems that all a ‘Withering Quip’ gets you now-a-days is whining by all of those types easily ‘triggered’.

    Ah, for the good old days, back when a withering quip returned a silence when it struck home – or a clever return volley if they were quick-witted enough. Those days are gone, all one can look forward to is a rant – one possibly proving that the ranter is far more the sexist or racist than the one whom quipped …

    • That, or perhaps someone bemoaning–predictably, and without evidence–that the “withering criticism” is considered politically incorrect. (A man who is clearly not reading NYT restaurant reviews…among other things.)

    • You do get the impression from articles and blogs that the women of old were made of sterner stuff than the younger generation now.

      • The guys as well.

        My parents had the sexual revolution, we now have the ‘he’s touching me/looking at me/saying something I don’t like’ generation that seems intent on never pulling up their ‘big boy/girl pants’ and growing up.

  2. just a side wish
    an article on women ‘quipping’ offering many women who are not the same old four tiresome quippers

    • They didn’t mention Dorothy Parker, so wish partially granted?

      • thanks Jamie, you made me laugh. Youre right.

      • Oh, yes, they mentioned Dottie Parker. She’s one of the women profiled in the book.

        “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 . . . “

  3. The Withering Quips would be a good band name.

  4. How does a withering quip differ from snark?

    • It’s classier 🙂

    • An onion by any other name makes you cry when you slice it.

      Though to be honest, a good quip often had a sound rebuttal built into it, where snark is often an attack at/on the person/group rather than the subject being discussed.

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