Women with an opinion—oh dear

Michelle Dean and Michelle Orange on women critics, ‘the back of the book,’ and being called a feminist

The past few years have marked a golden age for women critics and essayists. In 2017, there were trenchant new collections from Joan Didion, Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, Mary Gaitskill, and more. And much-anticipated new books of essays by Zadie Smith and Marilynne Robinson have been published in the first few months of this year. In Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove), the Los Angeles–based Canadian writer Michelle Dean explores the experiences of the genre’s pioneers, a wave of twentieth-century critics who included Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, and Mary McCarthy. (The book’s title captures both their wonderfully incisive writing styles and the label frequently affixed to them by their mostly male peers.)

Dean is a journalist and critic and recipient of a National Book Critics Circle citation for excellence in reviewing. She has contributed to publications such as The New Yorker, The Nation, Harper’s, and Slate. She spoke about the past, present, and future of female criticism with the New York-based Canadian essayist and writer Michelle Orange, whose acclaimed 2013 book This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) investigates through critical, journalistic, and personal essays a world increasingly mediated by images and interactivity. Orange’s writing has appeared in Harper’sMcSweeney’s,
the New York Times, and The New Yorker, and her second book, Pure Flame, is forthcoming.

They spoke over email.

Michelle Orange: You’ve chosen a number of prominent twentieth-century female writers—each of them known for a certain critical acumen—and drawn them together to tell a story about, among other things, the nature “of being a woman who thinks, and talks about thinking, in public.”

What I found most revelatory are the chains of influence, exchange, and progression—direct and indirect, personal and creative—that you suggest between writers like Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt and Susan Sontag, Arendt and Mary McCarthy, and so on. The success of the book for me feels tied to that assertion of a context for their various achievements and a rough sort of lineage between them. There’s some truth to the idea that each of these women were outliers in their time, but that doesn’t seem worth celebrating. In some sense you rescue these women from that, and tell a different story.

Michelle Dean: Sometimes I wonder if they would be mad at me for linking them in this way, even though in various ways they all seem to have acknowledged connections to each other. It’s tricky. Women, for obvious reasons, don’t really respond well to having their individuality flattened.

Orange: Were you taught the work of any of the writers you include in Sharp? How did you encounter them? Somehow I got through a double-major in English and film studies and a graduate degree in the latter without being assigned to read, say, Pauline Kael. Have certain of your subjects suffered for being left out of the academy? Or does it matter anymore?

Dean: At McGill, I did a degree in twentieth-century cultural history. I read quite a lot of Hannah Arendt in that context. Later, I did a graduate law degree at the University of Toronto, where my advisor, Jennifer Nedelsky, was of one of Arendt’s last students. But almost no one else in the book was on my shelves until much later. I ran across Parker because she’s ubiquitous. But I really sought these names out on my own. So the book is a stealth catalogue of my own education in women critics. I don’t remember what thread got me started. I think it may have been reading Nora Ephron’s journalism, a little while before she died, and realizing just how seriously good it was.

I suppose it’s not great that these women are left out of the academy, but I sometimes think [Joan] Didion is so popular because she’s not studied that much. Kael too. You can experience their work out of passion or accident. That tends to be a better experience.

Orange: In tracing the arc of many of these writers’ lives you often confront the challenge each of them faced with regard to developing confidence and authority on the page. I appreciated your focus on that, because for women that challenge can be particular. I’m thinking of Janet Malcolm: It struck me, in your chapter on her, how much of her career she has had to spend in a defensive posture. You detail the decade-long legal battle that surrounded In the Freud Archives, where her subject filed a $10-million suit against her, and the intense criticism of The Journalist and the Murderer by other journalists. Some portion of the controversy surrounding her work seems unavoidable, but another portion of it appears tied to a sense of outrage that a woman should write as powerfully, critically, and decisively as she does.

Norman Mailer is a sort of shadow figure in a number of these chapters, and one can’t help but think of someone like Malcolm, and what she has endured, in contrast to Mailer and the reward he reaped for his provocations.

Dean: I did ask Malcolm directly if she herself felt the pushback on her work had been a product of being a woman. And I remember her “yes” came very quickly. It almost surprised me how quickly. I’d been told all my life that certain women writers were very hostile to being told that either their work or the reception to it bore any relationship to their gender. But once I dove into this project it became so clear that they had more complicated feelings about the interplay of gender and authority than had been captured by anything I’d read before.

Orange: I was part of a panel of women critics you organized a few years ago in New York, and I remember, at one point, attempting to express the idea that women critics confront a resistance to their authority in a way that their male counterparts, generally, do not. I was scolded by another panel member for making this observation—in my memory she rolled her eyes and said, Aren’t we past all that by now?, and this was not at all her experience: men had been her great mentors and editors and promoters, etc.

At the time I wondered if there was a misunderstanding. I was thinking more in terms of the way a woman’s writing enters the world, how it is received, and how her status as a figure of critical authority develops (though I would say the resistance/bias exists to different degrees and in different forms at all levels). In any case, the moment bothered me for a long time, and I have thought about it recently and wondered if that exchange would have gone quite the same way had it taken place, say, in the last six months. Not least because one of the mentors this critic cited was outed for sexual harassment.

Dean: I do sort of remember this. Although what I remember chiefly was my annoyance as a moderator as the comment prompted the panel to do what women always do when this subject comes up, which is that we started to go around the room and list all our male mentors. As though to reassure the men in the room that we weren’t talking about them. Except of course, we were.

It’s hard to drop the habit of needing to reassure these men, a habit I think they tend to cultivate when they “mentor” you, of you always being there to serve their own emotional needs. When you are a young person it can be very hard to see mentorship as anything but a vast favour being conferred on you. It’s a really difficult awakening when you realize that the mentorship can serve emotional needs for the mentor, too, and that it’s not always altruistic.

Orange: I could have used a mentor, but who knew where to look? On moving to New York from Toronto, I learned that a significant portion of the people you meet in positions of editorial authority (and often the writers they champion) have a very specific pedigree and chain of connection. I was quite naive, actually. It seemed impossibly retrograde that it could matter so much where you went to school, that you had a certain fancy internship, that you knew the right people when you were twenty-two. I realized that I could never catch that train, and would have to find another way.

Dean: Well, I had a few mentors. But I was and am also surprised at how much pedigree mattered here. Though it was my impression pedigree mattered in Canada, too—just not school pedigree: it often seemed like one inherited status as a writer or editor directly from one’s parents. I didn’t really come from people who even got arts degrees, with their dubious employment prospects, so the whole idea of writing for a living just seemed impossibly foreign to me.

Orange: Our experience has some parallels. We’re both Canadian women who moved to New York to write. Can you describe the literary “scene” as you found it here? Was there such a thing? Having written about the lives of mid-century women who forged their way as writers and critical thinkers in a realm dominated by men, were you more struck by the differences or the similarities to your own experience?

Dean: I still feel I slipped in through the back door. I started out writing small feminist items for outlets like The American Prospect and Bitch. Then I fell in with this website called The Awl, which was a publication with proper editors and such, but which also felt like something of a community. And something about virtual space, at that particular moment of the internet, felt open and inclusive. It wasn’t particularly male-dominated, and it was a space where people who in another place might have been thought of as amateurs were allowed to experiment with their writing.

The graduate writing program I’d enrolled in before that, and dropped out of, was totally the opposite experience. Almost all the professors were men, and some admissions fluke had left me one of two women students in my little class. And it was a brutal education, because the men in that program read primarily men and talked endlessly about how they idolized John McPhee and Tracy Kidder, writers who I regret to say had never meant that much to me.  And mostly they did not take women writers seriously, not out of any conscious malice I think but mostly out of what they would have termed their personal preferences. They were not in the habit of reading many women. One of them once referred to Heidi Julavits as “Ben Marcus’s wife,” then when I challenged him, earnestly argued that Marcus was better known than Julavits. Which I don’t think is true.

If I had arrived to it a little younger and with fewer bylines under my belt, I think it would have squelched my desire to write altogether. It definitely left me with a chip on my shoulder.

Orange: What surprised me the most was the abject sexism of the “literary community” as I found it. I had held a job for several years at that point, before I moved to New York, and fancied I knew a bit about how the world worked. But nothing could have prepared me for those parties. I moved to Brooklyn, started publishing, and somehow wound up back at my high school. It was crushing.

Dean: Well, New York is a hothouse in the worst possible sense, sometimes. I didn’t do a lot of parties, largely because at one of the first ones I went to I had a “bad experience” and stopped feeling comfortable at them. It was funny how many things I think I missed out on, though, because I didn’t work the circuit.

Orange: A friend would tell me horror stories about a party, then try to convince me to come with her to the next one. She had more stamina than I did. I couldn’t bear the sense of being shut out of the circuit working that was going on between the men, the benefits of which were very real. They were there to reinforce their status, solder existing relationships, and further themselves, and we were there—why? I spent a couple of years trying to participate and then just pulled the chute.

Dean: We have had some advances in certain rarified spheres—academia, what’s left of literary or intellectual journalism—and a lot of setbacks elsewhere. I don’t think The New York Review of Books would publish something like Mailer’s review of The Group today, at least not complete with insults like “duncey broad.” But it is, as we learned in the last election, or frankly in the everyday political news, still very difficult not to come across as a harridan if you happen to have a strong opinion. Both men and women still seem to have a lot of trouble responding to confident women.

Orange: Speaking of loathsome expressions, yesterday I happened across a 1999 David Carr profile of a young female journalist and critic whom Carr describes “taking occasional turns as a culture babe in the back of the book” at The New Republic. The back of the book is where a lot of the women you write about started out—doing theatre and movie reviews. Of course that’s where many writers start out. But one gets the sense that the path out of the back pages was less clear and less traveled for a woman.

Dean: Yes—though I want to stress that moving criticism to the back of the book is a relatively recent development, at least from what I saw in my research. But it is true that much of the time, these were not thought of as serious subjects and that’s why it was acceptable to have the women do them. What is amusing, in a grim way, is how later many of these women were accused of writing only about trivialities. Dorothy Parker was said to have preoccupied herself too much with reviewing bad books and bad plays; Mary McCarthy was dismissed by Isaiah Berlin as “fine on life in general” but “no good on abstract ideas” and “not a great thinker.” Nora Ephron’s reputation, too, has sort of remained stuck in this idea that she wrote frivolously and humorously, but about personalities and not ideas.

Another way of putting this is that this quality of wit and sharpness was seen as okay in the back of the book, yes, but not in the middle. The tone itself was read as somehow unserious. And a hard line got drawn between serious writers, on the one hand—your Edmund Wilsons, your Lionel Trillings—and what the women were up to. Even though I don’t know that they saw themselves as caring about entirely different issues than those other (male) writers.

Orange: I admire the way you engage with the relationship some of your subjects had to gender, the extent to which they wished or didn’t wish to be identified as “women” in their work and in their lives, and specifically with feminism. In each case some mixture of conscious and unconscious calculation comes into play, as the women forged individual paths through a male-dominated field. Have you experienced some version of the same thing?

Dean: I think so. Though honestly, my personal context is so different. I am not sure I would have ever developed the confidence to actually write without feminist blogs. In that way I’m a lot more like people younger than the ones chronicled in the book—people who were actually helped in discovering their voices by feminism. And having “grown up” in that particular environment has made me both more frustrated and less frustrated with the demands the movement might make on me.

I’ve rarely had trouble with being identified as a feminist in the way the women in the book were. For me, the word casts wide nets and in that sense I embrace it. But I’ve felt myself wanting to pull away, become more specific, which inevitably takes you away from an abstraction like gender. For example, in the last few years I’ve tried not to use the word “feminist” in my work where not directly referring to a political identification someone’s made for herself. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the word. It’s more that as the popularity of feminism exploded, the term actually began to obscure more than it revealed. And as a writer I just started to be hostile to a word like that, that was morphing into jargon.

I actually feel it would be a triumph for feminism if we could all talk about feminism without spending so much time on the word. It prepares us to start articulating some answers to the harder questions about what feminism asks of us instead of being stuck at the “I am feminist, end of discussion” phase we seem stuck in at the moment.

Orange: That makes sense to me. The working title of the book I am writing, Pure Flame, derives from a Sontag line in The Volcano Lover: “Indeed, I did not think of myself as a woman first of all…I wanted to be pure flame.” What effect has the explosion of popular feminism had on the essay genre, if any? It could be argued there has been a correlation between the resurgence of both.

Dean: On the one hand it’s made people more comfortable speaking from personal authority in essays. Which I honestly have mixed feelings about. Initially, I was heartened—I believed all the things we now know as almost dogma: That women were enabled to speak in a way they hadn’t before, and that their open embrace of subjectivity was a great challenge to the false universality behind which many male essayists tend to hide. It was a great moment when that all opened up and I got swept up in it.

Lately I’ve been less thrilled, because it does feel that the takeaway is that the authority of personal experience is the only authority worth having. To be clear, it’s not the use of “I” in an essay I have a problem with, or even the inclusion of personal anecdote to illustrate an idea. But people don’t seem to think there’s room for additionally feeding their “I,” for lack of a better metaphor, with anything other than more personal experience. Essays get published (in fancy literary places!) in which the essayist is making a trite point and doesn’t even seem to know that the point’s been made in other, prior work that she could have read.

Other essayists, I’ve noticed recently, have even begun arguing that they shouldn’t have to have a point or an argument, or else that they shouldn’t be obligated to either find any message in their experiences or to convey one in the process of chronicling them. And I find that so depressing. I see why a teleological, purely argumentative essay culture would be boring—but the other extreme seems to me equally dreary, people leaving behind all these records of under-processed experience. That’s not what I read for, personally, to hear from a writer who has no interest in meaning.

Orange: Many of the women you write about, notably Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag,
and Renata Adler, devoted some significant portion of their writing lives to fiction. “Serious” twentieth-century writers wrote novels. Though a writer like Sontag insisted she was a fiction writer first, and rued her status as an essayist, she is to some degree responsible for the shift in the culture’s attitude toward non-fiction, and specifically the essay.

Dean: Sontag also really wanted to be a filmmaker, so I think more than feeling like a novel was the one true writer’s art, she wanted to be an artist. She wanted to create things, and she had some notion, I suppose, that essays were not creative. Not in the same way as fiction.

I think that longing is pretty common to critics and essayists, actually. Though I think if you spend a lot of time looking at the history of writers, as I have, it no longer seems quite so creative, the novel. You end up cobbling together bits and pieces of reality, and though you have more freedom to arrange and modify them as you see fit, the world is never very far off in the distance.