A debut book about the works of 20th-century women whose lives had a deep impact on culture.
“I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp,” writes New Republic contributing editor Dean. At first glance, the premise seems rather elementary. Such a qualifier can’t possibly carry with it the heft of a book’s premise. However, by exploring the different roles that women such as Joan Didion, Hannah Arendt, Renata Adler, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker occupied in the writing world, Dean makes it clear that to be called “sharp” was a steppingstone for their respective careers. All of the women are obviously extremely different: Dorothy Parker was hardly a contemporary of Susan Sontag, nor did they function within the same society. Hannah Arendt was not as progressively irreverent as Renata Adler. However, Dean reveals intriguing connections that link most, if not all, of them together. Each one of these women was involved in one way or another with Condé Nast, an extremely influential publishing group that could make or break writers’ careers. In writing for the New York Review of Books or Vogue, among other publications, they were able to test out their ideas on a captive audience of fiery New Yorkers and sophisticated, fashionable women. As is often the case with geniuses, their writings were not received with open arms; there was push back from an audience used to a male authorial power. Interestingly, however different these women may have been from each other, the author ably explains the ways in which their lives intersected, the conversations they had, and the goals they shared. Unfortunately, Dean often discusses these female authors’ writerly independence in relation to the men that occupied important places in their lives, an odd choice in a book of this nature. Still, the author presents engaging portraits of brilliant minds.
A useful take on significant writers “in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.”