Michelle Dean’s new book Sharp is dedicated to “every person who’s ever been told, ‘You’re too smart for your own good.'” The 10 iconic 20th-century women writers Dean profiles — in chapters that are part biography, part criticism, and part cultural history — were subjected to this damning praise all their lives. Nevertheless, they persisted . . . and they did it long before the phrase became a feminist rallying cry, thanks to what Dean describes as “the ability to write unforgettably in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.” The blades these women wielded varied; their sharpness did not. Here are five lessons from these unforgettable women.
Nora Ephron: Everything Is Copy, Even Ex-Husbands
Carl Bernstein should have known that cheating on Nora Ephron would earn him infamy on the page. Ephron’s parents were Hollywood screenwriters; “everything is copy” was a family creed. Oh, but how angry he was when Ephron’s first and only novel, Heartburn, became a giant bestseller! (So angry, in fact, that he demanded oversight on the subsequent screenplay.) Yet the last laugh is Ephron’s, as was her won’t. Heartburn made her rich, but it also did much more: it made her the hero of the story, “rather than the victim of a joke.”
Dorothy Parker: Wit Is Timeless
Famed for the kind of aphorisms that in the 1920s were passed around like truffles at cocktail parties (i.e. “Brevity is the soul of lingerie”), Parker moved to Hollywood for a screenwriting job. Upon arrival, she quickly developed a taste for Communism and gin. Both, sadly, curdled her sense of humor, though not enough to entirely rot her charms. When the FBI stopped by her house in 1951, she apparently told them: “Listen, I can’t even get my dog to stay down. Do I look to you like someone who could overthrow the government?”
Susan Sontag: Fame Isn’t Worth Chasing
Thanks to her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” Sontag became one of the 1960s literary It girls. But creating and maintaining an image comes at a cost, and Sontag was ambivalent about her status as a celebrity, as only those who have it can be. “It follows you around mercilessly,” she told an interviewer, “awkward, useless, essentially unrelated to the self.”
Rebecca West: The Quickest Way to a Man’s Heart Is Through an Intellectual Challenge
Even before West had established her reputation as one of Britain’s preeminent journalists and critics, she had few reservations about rattling the literary establishment. In a 1912 review, the young West called the already-lionized H.G. Wells “the Old Maid among novelists”; Wells, in lieu of pouting, invited West to tea. Soon the two embarked on an affair that would produce both a son and soap-operatic drama, the latter of which ended only when West tired of Wells’s ego and took off for America.
Pauline Kael: Fun Is a Value
Kael (pictured fourth from right with fellow jurors at the Cannes Film Festival) became a household name in 1965 with her bestselling collection of film reviews titled I Lost It at the Movies. She prided herself on eclecticism, exuberance, and running afoul of both highbrow and lowbrow consensus. In one of her most famous essays, “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” she argues in favor of pleasure over aesthetics, eroticism over hermeneutics: “Why should pleasure need justification?”