Women Intellectuals and the Art of the Withering Quip


Arts & Culture

Illustration from the cover of Sharp, by Michelle Dean.


“If one is a woman writer there are certain things one must do,” the British writer and journalist Rebecca West wrote 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. Her final book, an idiosyncratic history of the year 1900, was published just before her death at the age of ninety. It was the capstone to a career that spanned almost seven decades. West’s true audacity was not merely “to go on writing,” as she put it, but to flourish in an insular, nepotistic intellectual culture that was largely hostile to women. She was ambitious, unafraid, and prodigiously gifted—in a word, sharp.

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.” If this casts something of a wide net, it does so out of necessity: the collected body of work this constellation of women produced—a mixture of fiction, book and movie reviews, essays, cultural criticism, and journalism—comprises a map of twentieth-century thought. “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 forties—men and women alike—and their petty spats and rivalries that lasted for days or for decades.

Take, for instance, the jealous male critic who referred to Hannah Arendt as “Hannah Arrogant” behind her back. (The poet Delmore Schwartz went one further, calling her “that Weimar Republic flapper.”) Or the likely apocryphal story of a young intellectual it girl named Susan Sontag being approached by the novelist Mary McCarthy at a party. “I hear you’re the new me,” McCarthy is reported to have told her coolly. Diana Trilling, in turn, called McCarthy “a thug” after an unflattering portrayal of Trilling’s social circle appeared in McCarthy’s The Oasis. The film critic Pauline Kael called Joan Didion’s novel Play It As It Lays “ridiculously swank” and “a novel [she] read between bouts of giggles.” And Renata Adler savaged Kael’s film-review collection When the Lights Go Down by deeming it “simply, jarringly, piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.” It is within these gloriously caustic set pieces that one begins to understand Dean’s eponymous sharpness as multivalent: capacious intellect wedded to a surgical verbal acuity.

This is not to imply that their relations were solely combative. Indeed, Sharp is particularly astute in its complex portrayal of female intellectual solidarity, friendship, and dissent. Dean traces the fine strands of a genuine, if sometimes guarded, network of appreciation. The most meaningful of these relationships was likely between Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, the latter of whom delivered a poignant eulogy at Arendt’s funeral: “The first time I heard her speak in public—nearly thirty years ago, during a debate—I was reminded of what Bernhardt must have been or Proust’s Berma, a magnificent stage five, which implies a goddess. Perhaps a chthonic goddess, or a fiery one, rather than the airy kind.” Such moments of warmth and mutual recognition dispel the caricature of the angry mid-century woman intellectual, slinging outrageous insults while ashing her menthol in a martini glass.

Instead, Dean shows how this fiercely whetted intelligence was often mobilized against the prevailing conditions of intellectualism. These women came of age in a culture mired in sexism, and “the key to [their] power,” Dean writes, “was in how they responded to it, with a kind of intelligent skepticism that was often very funny.” Irony, sarcasm, and a powerfully sardonic humor—what Dean calls “the tools of outsiders”—were weaponized in order to carve out intellectual space for themselves and each other. They punctured the swollen bladder of male self-regard with the pointed art of the rejoinder.

These ripostes were disarmingly mordant, droll, and often smartly compressed. Indeed, their brevity could at times belie their concussive force. When a young man wrote in to The Freewoman to protest a Rebecca West essay, her reply, published in a 1912 letter to the editor, was simply: “This is most damping.” Mary McCarthy, while reviewing what were said to be the best short stories of a then famous journalist, wrote, “It would be kinder to think that he had discovered the majority of them in an old trunk.” In response to an auteur theorist in Film Culture who had pontificated on “the distinguishable personality of the director as a criterion of value,” Pauline Kael asked, “The smell of a skunk is more distinguishable than the perfume of a rose; does that make it better?” Perhaps most devastating of all was Joan Didion’s two-word response to a Woody Allen acolyte who took issue with her review of Manhattan in The New York Review of Books: “Oh, wow.”

These coolly scornful quips were not often well-received. Then, as now, men could give but not get. (One thinks of Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”) The style and boldness of such dismissals violated the prescriptive politeness expected of women. “The difficulty,” Dean writes, “is that people have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ who do not genuflect, who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” The very quality that made these women “sharp”—their fearsomely barbed wit—was sometimes used as grounds to diminish their achievements. In a 1947 piece for Vogue, the literary critic Alfred Kazin called Mary McCarthy’s novel The Company They Keep “deeply serious” before proposing the book was “as maliciously female as one chorus girl’s comments on another.” This qualified praise was symptomatic of the era’s gendered criticism. In the brittle, heatless world of high culture, being wickedly funny was tantamount to being unserious. Brilliant indecorousness, then, was another trait that bound Dean’s subjects together.

Which raises a question that looms over Sharp from its first page: Would these women—nonconformists, all—appreciate being gathered in such a book? Dean acknowledges their ambivalence toward any suggestion of a collective “sisterhood.” (“I can imagine Hannah Arendt haranguing me for placing her work in the context of her womanhood at all,” she writes in the book’s preface.) Allegiance to group-based definitions was largely anathema to these women, particularly the fragmented politics of second-wave feminism. Few of the critics in Sharp identified as feminists, at least early on in their careers, and several were openly hostile to the movement. “We have a habit, now, of assuming that people had only one kind of reaction to the women’s movement: either they were all in, or they were all out,” Dean writes. Not so with these iconoclasts, who might sympathize with the broad goals of feminism while recoiling from what they saw as its disappointing essentialism. “Like all capital truths,” Susan Sontag wrote in a 1975 The New York Review of Books essay, “feminism is a bit simple-minded.” Such internal divisiveness makes the book’s organizing principle somewhat elusive. And yet that each woman would argue against her inclusion becomes, by the book’s end, Sharp’s primary animating force. Dean’s feat of intellectual wrangling is as impressive for what it holds together—the exquisite, creaking tension of ten arch individualists—as for what it deconstructs.

When speaking from the periphery, the art of having an opinion—“to go on writing and writing well,” as West had it—acquires a moral dimension. The extraordinary achievements detailed in Sharp are a necessary corrective for a culture that would admonish women—these women in particular—for being “too smart for their own good.”


Dustin Illingworth is a writer in Southern California. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Los Angeles Times.