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Slouching Towards Instagram: On the Women Who Changed How We Think About Ourselves

A new book explores the prickly, fascinating history of female voices in modern criticism. And what they mean to us now.

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The first time they met, at a cocktail party in the late 1940s, Mary McCarthy insulted Hannah Arendt, and Arendt let her know it. McCarthy was then a literary critic who would soon become well known for her autobiographical short-story collection The Company She Keeps and particularly the sexually forthright story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit” — essentially the “Cat Person” of the 1940s. She made a passing, provocative remark about how she “felt sorry for Hitler.” Arendt — a formidable political philosopher and a Jew who’d fled Europe during the war — exploded. “How can you say this to me, a victim of Hitler, a person who has been in a concentration camp?” she said to McCarthy, storming out of the party after she’d reprimanded the host for allowing people like McCarthy into his home.

For several years, though they traveled in similar social circles, Arendt and McCarthy didn’t speak. Then one day, after leaving a meeting of contributors to the midcentury journal politics, they ran into each other on an Astor Place subway platform and Arendt offered an olive branch. “Let’s end this nonsense,” she said. “We think so much alike.” McCarthy apologized for her flippant comment about Hitler; Arendt admitted she hadn’t been in a concentration camp, per se, but rather a French internment camp. “And to a degree unmatched among modern intellectuals,” the scholar Carol Brightman writes in a thick volume of their subsequent collected letters, which span more than 20 years, “their friendship prospered ever after.”

This is by far the warmest, fuzziest story of solidarity in Michelle Dean’s new book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, and beginning as it does with an off-color comment about Hitler, readers looking for blandly inspirational tales of #squadgoals should probably look elsewhere. At nearly every other turn, these women — few of whom explicitly identified as feminist, and some of whom were vocally critical of the women’s movement — sparred with the people around them, and not infrequently with one another.

For example, one of the first major assignments given to the swashbuckling film critic Pauline Kael was a pan of McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Group. (It was not actually published, because the critic Elizabeth Hardwick, a longtime editor of The New York Review of Books, didn’t find it up to par, killed it — and instead wrote a parody of The Group herself under a pseudonym.) Kael had even less admiration for Joan Didion, of whose 1970 novel Play It As It Lays she’d later remark, “I found the Joan Didion novel to be ridiculously swank, and I read it between bouts of disbelieving giggles.” Didion, for her part, later documented her take on Kael’s criticism in the NYRB (“I used to wonder how Pauline Kael, say, could slip in and out of such airy subordinate clauses as ‘now that the studios are collapsing,’ or how she could so misread the labyrinthine propriety of Industry evenings as to characterize ‘Hollywood wives’ as women ‘whose jaws get a hard set from the nights when they sit soberly at parties waiting for their sloshed geniuses to take them home”). McCarthy, in her letters to Arendt, chuckled about the earnestness of a new young critical upstart named Susan Sontag (“When I last watched her with you at the Lowells’, it was clear that she was going to seek to conquer you. Or that she had fallen in love with you — the same thing”). Renata Adler, who was briefly engaged to McCarthy’s son, knew Arendt enough to claim that she “never cared for Sontag.” But perhaps the most famous rivalry of all is the one between Kael and Adler, who wrote a notorious 1980 takedown of the former’s most recent collection of criticism, calling it “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”

Thank God most of these women did not live to see the dawn of Twitter.

In the modern, one-dimensional parlance of clickbait and clapbacks, we might reduce these arguments to “catfights.” But a large and welcome part of Dean’s project is to complicate the way we think of solidarity, feminism, and woman-on-woman disagreement, particularly between critics. Sharp comes at a time when the internet has warped and flattened critical discourse; it can often feel that personal brands are more important than well-crafted prose, that passive “likes” are more coveted than constructive disagreements, and that any woman who so much as questions the orthodoxy of “internet feminism” is permanently kicked off the team. But Dean’s thoroughly researched book is refreshingly clear-sighted: It shows that, although much has changed since the halcyon days of the Algonquin, plenty has stayed the same. Nearly all of these writers took on puff pieces every now and again to pay the bills. Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West churned out newspaper copy at rates comparable to today’s bloggers. A man once wrote a lengthy letter to the editor of the NYRB to mansplain Woody Allen to Joan Didion (to which, bless her, she simply replied, “Oh, wow”).

The feminist question, though, was a little more complicated than it looks in the rearview. “We have a habit, now, of assuming that people had only one kind of reaction to the women’s movement: either they were all in, or they were all out,” Dean writes in a chapter about second-wave skeptic Nora Ephron. “But the second wave was not, as its critics like Didion sometimes framed it, a united front. Its internal politics were fractious, with arguments about the way age and race and any number of other intrafeminine fault lines inflected this business of ‘being a woman.’ Any real person, looking at all that, had to have a conflicted take on it all. It was possible to feel extreme, uncontrollable surges of hope and disappointment.”

If there is a single, common thread among the disparate women in Sharp, it is probably that they would all recoil from being in a book like Sharp, which not only classifies them by their gender but features, on its cover, cartoonish illustrations of these women harmoniously attending some sort of imaginary, intergenerational cocktail party. (“I am eating this book up like candy,” New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum tweeted above a picture of Sharp’s cover earlier this week, “and I want to collect all of these paper dolls.”) Dean has taken on an admirably difficult task, placing these women under a common umbrella while at the same time attempting to honor their combative spirits. But it’s worth asking: Is there insight to be gained by grouping them this way, or does it just blunt their edges?

For the longest time, even long after it had been printed next to my name on a business card, I recoiled from the word “critic.” It’s deceptively prim. The double i’s made me think of feeble little toothpicks wielded at boring cocktail parties. And tweed. And that hilarious bit of dialogue from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, when a pretentiously efficient undergraduate tells a female companion that he prefers literary criticism to novels, because “that way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking.” It all used to bring to mind a cartoon character voiced by Jon Lovitz saying, “Buy my book.”

It was paradoxical: Because as much as that word promises disagreements and dissenting opinions, it also seemed to me to agree upon an established set of values, certain inalienable truths. That, say, the films of Francis Ford Coppola were more important than those of Jane Campion, or that Ernest Hemingway was a better stylist than Zora Neale Hurston. Or that Bob Dylan was saying something more universal and thus Greater than Joni Mitchell. Or that Andrew Sarris had more to say about movies than bell hooks. “Criticism,” in my view at least, had certain limits; its conversations always had to happen within the planetary atmosphere of the canon. And I had a problem with canons, because the principles by which they were organized seemed directly related to the principles that had kept people like me out of the conversations through which they were formed, or from calling themselves “critics.” I was not someone who grew up expecting that even a college education would result in an invitation to that party.

So yes, to be blunt and maybe a little sweeping, when I was growing up the word “critic” just made me think of white men.

The path by which I stumbled into criticism appeared entirely by accident, or by being an undergraduate who was too lazy to read course descriptions all the way through. The second semester of my sophomore year, I signed up for a class called “Film Writing, Film Culture.” Assuming that screenwriting was the only kind of “film writing” that was valid and artful enough to be taught in college, I thought this class was a script workshop. When I showed up the first day and learned that it was a survey of the history of film criticism, I laughed silently at my mistake and made a note to see what other courses were being offered in this time slot so I could transfer out. That first day, though, we had to pick from a list the name of a particular critic on whom we would do a semester-long project. As I recall it, there were two women on this list, and when it got to me the one I’d heard of, Manohla Dargis, had been claimed. So I picked the other woman. Pauline Kael.

The reason I stayed in the class, and in no small way the reason I became a critic, is because something very college happened: I got mono from a shared bottle of fruit-flavored liquer and was too sick to transfer out of the criticism class by the deadline. This essay and every review I have written in the past eight years is sponsored by 99 Bananas.

I was, at the beginning of that semester, dating A Guy Who Knew About Movies. He spoke with authority about which were good and which were overrated. He could recite certain facts about the new wave and could confidently and with casual authority dismiss entire directors’ filmographies: Godard was a genius, Truffaut was trash. Week-End was great; Jules and Jim sucked. There was no “I think” or “I believe” with him: His opinions felt to me like facts, and mine felt like clouds. (To quote a young Susan Sontag’s often self-lacerating journals, “My ‘I’ is puny, cautious, too sane. Good writers are roaring egotists, even to the point of fatuity.”) I let him win all the arguments, although I’m not sure there were any arguments, because I took his opinions to be true. I was young. A lot of young men are socialized to talk this way about movies and music and books; a lot of young women, myself included, were socialized not to butt into those sorts of conversations, or were called bitches or weirdos when we did. I’m not saying that it was a universal experience, but I do believe it was a common one, and either way it was mine: that as a young woman I was not socialized to have strong or particularly dissenting opinions about art, or really anything else. Then Pauline Kael came into my life and mixed that up forever.

Staying in that class meant reading a semester’s worth of Kael — glory be. I loved the coarseness of her vernacular, the way she could bring even the highbrow down to a bar-conversational level (on Carl Theodor Dreyer: “Everything that son-of-a-bitch did was great.”) She could rhapsodize ecstatically about what she loved (McCabe & Mrs. Miller was “a beautiful pipe dream of a movie — a fleeting, almost diaphanous vision of what frontier life might have been”) and she could sum up everything wrong with a movie in a single, cutting adjective (Woody Allen’s Interiors was “entombed”). Kael taught me a lesson that spring I’m not sure I could have learned from a contemporary, especially not a decade later in the fast-motion shouting match of the social media age, which was that it was possible to admire a piece of writing while also vehemently disagreeing with it. (I think she’s so wrong about The Sound of Music! And, hell, Didion!) And, even more revelatory to me at the time, that a review could be artful enough that you didn’t even have to have seen or read the thing it was reviewing to get enjoyment or insight from reading it. In my worn-out copy of I Lost It at the Movies, Kael’s review of Billy Budd is dotted with marginalia in several different colors of ink (“Melville is not a civilized, European writer; he is our greatest writer because he is the American primitive struggling to say more than he knows how to say, struggling to say more than he knows”), and yet I’ve still never seen the movie. Maybe never will.

And so I mark a major part of my emotional maturity and critical development at the moment I decided — fuck what anybody else thought — that I thought Truffaut’s Jules and Jim was great. I must have watched it 10 times that semester, after that guy and I broke up. I kept checking it out of the library and just reveling in how wonderful it was and how wrong he was about it, how correct Pauline and I were. She had been dead for five or six years at that point, and yet I felt chummily in cahoots with her — what more can a writer ask for from the afterlife. “Jules and Jim is not only one of the most beautiful films ever made, and the greatest motion picture of recent years,” she wrote in 1962, with ridiculous but strangely admirable hyperbole, “it is also, viewed as a work of art, exquisitely and impeccably moral.” I was not sure I quite agreed with her at the time, and in retrospect I would definitely stop short of calling Jules and Jim “the greatest motion picture” of the early ’60s. But I was intoxicated by the authority with which she espoused lines like this, and how they made her gender seem completely irrelevant to the conversation. On the page, she assumed the stance of a gunslinger. A friend, in her biography, called her a “frontier plainswoman.”

Oh, how Pauline Kael would hate that I picked her out of that list because she was the only woman. The more I learned about her, the more I saw that some of her popularity and acceptance had to do with her voice being somewhat “masculine,” and her uninterest in identifying with second-wave feminism. And yet, irreconcilably, a direct reason that I became a critic — that I gradually became less and less grossed out by that word — was because I saw a woman’s name on that list, and because Pauline Kael was that woman.

Dean gives proper credence to Kael, though I couldn’t help but notice that the feminist film critic Molly Haskell is given only a passing nod. It is a futile and endless game to quibble about which female critics Dean has left out of Sharp, but let’s play it anyway: Elizabeth Hardwick, bell hooks, Ellen Willis, Audre Lorde, Shulamith Firestone, Adrienne Rich … OK, enough of that. It seems that Dean’s organizing principle was to sketch portraits of a certain social class of (white) 20th-century female writer, one who criticized feminism more often than buying into its dogma, and one who became a kind of media darling in her own time. “I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives,” Dean notes on her opening page, “they were called sharp.” And yet in the incisive but too brief introduction and conclusion, I wish she’d defined her terms a little more explicitly, provided a little more explanation as to why these women and not others. Since Sharp aims to expand and revise the canon of 20th-century public intellectuals, the restrictions that Dean places on herself — to not profile writers of color, for example, or writers who aligned themselves too closely with the collective spirit of feminism — feel unnecessarily narrow. The closeness to which the book sticks to its own somewhat arbitrary set of rules is its only major disappointment: If the goal is to expand and revise the canon, why not imagine one that is wider and more inclusive than this?

But if one accepts Dean’s strictures, it’s easy to appreciate how astute a reader she is of these particular women’s work — especially the ones with whom most people will be the most familiar. Of all the writers chronicled in Sharp, Didion is perhaps the most widely (or at least vocally) adored by a certain cohort of internet-savvy young women; she’s become a kind of digital avatar of California cool and stylish minimalism. “Joan Didion functions as a mental shortcut,” Haley Mlotek wrote on The Awl in 2015, in an essay called “Free Joan Didion.” “Joan Didion requires very little explanation to a very large group of people, representing a class of consumers who tend to be young, female, upper middle class, white, and somewhat inwardly tortured.” For a critic as keenly attuned to nuance as Didion, there is perhaps no crueler fate than being turned into a “mental shortcut,” or a literary paper doll. And so one of the most vital things Dean does, in Sharp, is to restore some of that nuance and ambivalence to our image of Didion — and all these other writers. Dean does not shy away from quoting criticism of Didion or pointing out the times she was controversial or even, by our modern standards (God help us), “problematic.” (Didion characterized the second-wave feminist “Everywoman” as someone who is “persecuted even by her gynecologist,” and “raped on every date.”)

The 2017 movie Ingrid Goes West features a biting joke about the internet-ization of writers like Didion, when an Instagram influencer played by Elizabeth Olsen posts a carefully staged photo to her feed: A matcha latte topped with heart-shaped foam, and a vintage hardback copy of Didion’s landmark 1979 essay collection The White Album. “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ –Joan Didion,” she captions the photo. The joke lands if you’ve so much as cracked a copy of The White Album: That quote is the first sentence of the book.

Although it’s become a modern cliché, Dean locates the dark side of this phrase. “The fact that ‘we tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as Didion had written in The White Album, was not exactly laudatory,” she writes. “It inflicted some kind of damage. The stories were, after all, self-deceptions. We used them to conceal an element of the truth from ourselves, because the whole truth was somehow unbearable.”

Romantic as it is to think that the arc of criticism bends toward progress, I am not sure it’s any easier these days to be a woman with an opinion than, say, when Didion was elegantly trashing Manhattan. Female critics face a disproportionate and sometimes mass-orchestrated amount of harassment, abuse, and trolling when they publish anything online. (The journalist Amanda Hess mapped out this dynamic in her great 2014 essay “Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet” — which captured the sadness of the contemporary moment as well as anything in The White Album.) Particularly as a woman, modern critical conversations can easily feel dispiriting, pointless, even dangerous. But Sharp is a welcome reminder of the long tradition in which we are operating and an invitation to look beyond the Twitter outrage of the day, to the horizon of the long game.

Overall, Sharp is a welcome corrective to the tweedy, masculine, and largely outdated image too many people still associate with “criticism”: I hope it helps readers expand their mental image of the “critic,” and that they use it as a stepping stone, to develop their own argumentative chumminess with the critics who speak to them. Still, Dean is smart enough to point out that the bland version of a universal and defanged “sisterhood” among all female writers is perhaps just another self-deception — another story we tell ourselves in order to live. The greatest justice she does to these women is to take them down off their modern pedestals and let them argue with one another, and that refreshing fighting spirit makes her book well worth reading. As Dean recently told the online magazine Mythos, “We need to remember that sisters betray each other. Sisters fight. Sisters sometimes become permanently estranged. Those concepts don’t seem to work into people’s ideas of sisterhood sometimes, with the demands that they’re trying to make on each other in the name of sisterhood. They don’t contain the notion that you could both be aligned with someone and still disagree with them. That ultimately, you could believe that their rights need to be protected, and still disagree with them.”

And so perhaps the greatest compliment I can give Sharp is that I had a few quibbles with it.