A deep history of women’s cultural criticism

Michelle Dean's book isn't exactly a group biography. But it is a highly entertaining feast of quotes, anecdotes, and analysis.

The person who picks up Sharp in the bookstore and gazes at its cover illustrations—line drawings of Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Dorothy Parker, Janet Malcolm, Mary McCarthy, Rebecca West, and Pauline Kael—may wonder what sort of book it is.

It’s not exactly a group biography. It’s not a study of a single period or milieu, although certain editors and institutions show up more than once. It doesn’t trace out a single line of influence or sensibility: not all of the writers it discusses were even particularly interested in each other. (Adler famously flamed Kael. Kael mocked Didion’s hypersensitivity. McCarthy supposedly greeted Sontag at a party with “I hear you’re the new me.” I can’t begin to imagine what, if anything, Arendt thought of Ephron.)

It’s easy enough to draw connections between any two or three of them—Arendt and Mary McCarthy, in particular, shared an unusually noncompetitive and supportive friendship, with Mc­Carthy giving up several years of her own working time to finish Arendt’s posthumous The Life of the Mind. But it’s hard to connect all of them via any idea less general than “They were all women who wrote brilliant, penetrating nonfiction.”