I have yet to read a good review of Michelle Dean's Sharp, a book-length work of historical criticism. That's likely owing to the fact the book's formal release is still a few days away—you can pre-order it, as I have, but its official publication date is April 10—and everyone who's anyone is saving their important thoughts for Tuesday. But I'd prefer to explain it the way any of the women profiled in "Sharp" would: Art criticism is, by and large, dead, and so it falls to me to man the bookshelves.
Sharp, which Dean appears to have begun working on in late 2012, is a richly-researched series of 10 interlocking biographies of the mind. Beginning with Dorothy Parker in the 1910s and ending with Renata Adler, who last published a non-fiction work in 1999, Dean's work examines 21st century intellectual life through the lens of its under-celebrated female observers and critics. She describes in detail the circumstances in which they generated not only their greatest hits (Didion's work in El Salvador or Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism") but their worst personal and professional decisions (very of the woman, even when their paths intersected, formed relationships despite obvious overlapping interests, while many of their published missteps have to do with insensitivity to race in the United States).
At its best, Sharp feels like a lighthouse's glare beamed into the dark depths of a brackish ocean. It illuminates the lives of its subjects, whether you've never heard them before or, in fact especially, when you thought you'd heard everything about them. The book, as Dean must have hoped it would, given the dedication written to "every person who's ever been told, 'You're too smart for your own good'", feels like it's setting the record straight and settling some ancient score; who knows where we can go from here. When Norman Mailer pops up for the dozenth time and is about to offer some unnecessary criticism (or compliment) or Arendt friendship with Mary McCarthy is an unlikely bud just about to blossom, it can even be suspenseful.
At its worst, the book is procedural, textbook, a real clunker. Dean's prose tends more toward Sontag-ian idea-first inelegance, with the occasional Ephron-esque witticisms sprinkled in for good measure. This suits the material at hand, but certain moments seem to indicate a lack of style (rather than the execution of an intentionally sparse one) or, perhaps, a lackadaisical editing process. Why, for example, was it mentioned that Nora Ephorn first arrived in New York during the Feast of Saint Anthony, a fact neither explained nor referenced again? And what editor allows a sentence fragment like "the drama of a kidnapping making for dramatic headlines" to go to print?
But Dean is never insensitive, ignorant, or avoidant when it comes to the very obvious issue of race. And that's what all the other critics have so far gotten wrong.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, one of the few professional reviews alongside the (aggressively paywalled) Wall Street Journal and the industry journal Kirkus to have published, Kate Tuttle interrupts her short, superficial review with an aside:
As if to pull herself out of this self-made pothole, which ostensibly lies on road leading to some large point, Tuttle only offers: "But that's not to diminish this book, which feels urgent in its own right."
A call for more diversity is, of course, never wrong. But in the case of Sharp it is, thankfully, beside the point. Dean's profiles are, first and foremost, about 20th century female writers who were called—quite literally—"sharp" in contemporary conversation or written criticism of the time. What's more, to generate the connective tissue Dean needed for her book, each woman had to know personally at least one of the other women in the book. In a world where women were rarely seen as much of anything, those who were able to make any headway in the male-dominated, racially segregated (de juro and later de facto), and largely New York-based literary scene were, as Dean puts it in the introduction, naturally "not a perfect demographic sample. ...white, and often Jewish, and middle class."
In other words: The complaint about the lack of critics of color is something to be taken up with the historical figures, not the historian.
Of course, more inclusive histories are almost also possible. Just look at other recent releases, like historian Miranda Kaufmann's Black Tudors: The Untold Story, which documents the vibrant history of Africans in 16th century England, or classicist Mary Beard's Women & Power: A Manifesto, about the ancient origins of misogyny. The thing is, Dean can be listed among these more thoughtful writers. While the chapter on Zora Neale Hurston may not have satisfied Tuttle's rather wishful appetite, it address head on the overwhelming whiteness of the book and acknowledges the important work done by a black female writer against all odds. Dean addresses race—in particular the insensitivity those profiled here exhibit toward it—in other ways, too, dissecting both Rebecca West's blindness to interpersonal and internalized racism when documenting lynching for The New Yorker in the 1940s and, later, Hannah Arendt's bizarre argument against school desegregation.
What most frustrated me about Tuttle's argument and other ones like it on Goodreads is its dismissal of how far we have to go or, alternatively, how little we've progressed. There should be no delay in writing about "black, brown, queer, [and] disabled" writers at work today. (If there's one thing that Sharp shows, it's how unfair contemporary critics are to writers on the margins of society.) But there should also be a moment of celebration that this book, the one in my lap, is finally here.
Before I heard about Sharp, I'd been tweeting about my frustrations with the way Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, and their peers are addressed in contemporary culture. At my most optimistic, I've sent my wish for a portrait of my favorite female critics out into the world. (Unfortunately, no one has answered my implicit call for free art and sent me something to hang over my desk and smile down on me.) In other moments, like the feverish state that always sways me on New Year's Eve, I complained about how many philosophy majors can make it through a undergraduate degree with reading few to no women. While every fraternity brother at my college fancied himself a Pabst Blue Ribbon philosopher, Arendt is labeled a "public intellectual" and Origins of Totalitarianism—a 704-page force of nature—can be totally avoidable in the course of such a degree.
Sharp, in many ways, is the answer to these Twitter rants and tiny prayers. While I, too, wish, it had been different—crisper writing, more and more diverse characters, illustrations on each chapter page instead of simply on the cover—I'm thankful for what it is. In the best of all worlds, Dean's text would simply be a start; its success would create space for more criticism of this kind rather than merely filling a hole. But fill a hole it does.