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Review: Michelle Dean’s Sharp and Elizabeth Renzetti’s Shrewed shine light on defiant women

Sharp

By Michelle Dean

Grove Press, 384 pages

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Shrewed

By Elizabeth Renzetti

House of Anansi Press, 304 pages

Two among several books of essays by women stand out this spring – both are by Canadian journalists and both map the terrain of their respective beats. One is looking ahead, but that's not possible without the other's backward glance.

Michelle Dean dedicates Sharp to every person who's ever been told: "You're too smart for your own good." We all know at whom that remark is usually directed: women, and especially those of caustic opinion who claim authority. That woman is Dean's subject, from Renata Adler, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, to Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm and Nora Ephron, whose hit autobiographical novel and movie Heartburn Dean calls "one of the great pop acts of feminist revenge." Then onward to Susan Sontag, whose camp and queer sensibilities intertwine and who a Washington Post profile once dubbed "rude and strident." It is said with an eye roll, and perhaps the appreciative suggestion more of us could disregard the conditioning of propriety.

On the heels of Sharp, Elizabeth Renzetti, a Globe and Mail columnist, recalls finding her taste for contention in the school library, "where all young heretics" are born. It's a throwaway but revealing line because her book starts with the same premise as Dean's: that knowledge is power. In Shrewed, she grapples with the strains of misogyny in contemporary culture. Her voice is loose and direct, a close first-person that's conspiratorial and self-deprecating, like a late-career Ephron laced with profanity and Scotch.

But let's start at the beginning. Dean, who is also an award-winning book critic raised in suburban Ottawa and now based in the United States, explores the careers of 10 women in various overlapping configurations and spheres of influence, over 14 chronological chapters. Working from biographies, the women's own published texts and correspondences, as well as documented critical receptions from their day, she has managed to essentialize their lives. Among other things, there is a consideration of their respective attitudes toward the prevailing feminist waves of their time – and toward each other – which range from ambivalent to hostile. The result is a recalibration of the centre of gravity of 20th-century intellectual history, of women writing in defiance of social hierarchy.

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"Irony, sarcasm, ridicule: these can be the tools of outsiders, a by-product of the natural skepticism toward conventional wisdom that comes when you haven't been able to participate in its formulation," Dean writes.

In the morsels of work that Dean selects, their honesty and well-aimed criticism is exhilarating. She leads with Dorothy Parker, who resisted the 1920s role-play of the sophisticated aesthete and did not tick the Zelda Fitzgerald-like box of reckless flapper, choosing instead to parody her husband's fetish of the upper-classes. "Once More Mother Hubbard," a fairy tale parody of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night for Life magazine in 1921, features indolent paramours perpetually weary and yawning. It is clearly inspired by close reading of Fitzgerald's hit, and Parker's withering choice of adverb is the coup de grâce: "'Tell me about you,' he said, carelessly." If only Parker were still around to compose such pithy ripostes for the online troll era, something to have at hand for every mansplained "Actually …" today on social media.

Such insights were not always well received. Mary McCarthy, for example, was cast as a femme fatale-type in the pages and at the parties of the Partisan Review, midcentury Manhattan's most influential intellectual journal. While McCarthy went on to write the acclaimed bestselling novel The Group, her earlier work caused consternation for what some considered its pure malice. The cunning putdown of playwright Lillian Hellman is the most infamous example: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

"Readers always admitted she had a certain perceptiveness, a chiselled style," Dean explains. "But they did not like what she saw when she looked at the world, or at least they found her somehow impolite for recording it in prose." Think descriptors such as catty, or grudges likened to competition among chorines (translation: petty, female), that suggest criticism by women is not healthy female egotism, it's destructive.

And what of their feelings about each other? Take the "confident warrior" Rebecca West. She was the only woman writing for The New Republic when it launched in 1914, in part because she had a disregard for the pieties around established novelists. But Dean also reveals the self-doubt – lately better known as imposter syndrome – and at times the tension between wanting to be heard and wanting to be liked. To another woman of the time, it seemed to show: Ruth Hale saw the idealized strong, independent woman in West's prose, but felt let down and underwhelmed by West in person.

Some chapters don't so much end as hang, with an invisible narrator's cocked eyebrow that suggests treasure ahead and an immediate turning of the page. Like an erudite Perils of Pauline – the weekly women's serials that kept audiences on tenterhooks in Parker's heyday.

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For close followers of recent news and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, much of what Renzetti gathers will be a familiar recap. What makes it work is how she contextualizes it and adds candid memoir throughout, as she remembers withering under sexist comments or appraises everyday heroines, such as her mother, Mildred.

Renzetti has spent 30 years as a reporter, editor and columnist, and has been on the receiving end of much invective and abuse, even with moderated online comments. (Rule No. 1: Never read the comments.) But if the journalistic life can take a toll, it is balanced with frequent enrichment and uplift, which Renzetti gets from crime writer P.D. James, whom she revisits as an interview subject several times over the years. Their conversation prompts exploring the opportunity costs of creativity, while another asks if work-life balance is achievable and debates whether it's even desirable. But that's another essay, as is a consideration of how the map of ambition varies, how its shape has been determined by patriarchal constructs.

There are lessons about perseverance driven home by the straight talk of Hillary Clinton after her failed U.S. presidential campaign and about the opportunity costs of creativity when interviewing Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel. Revisiting an afternoon spent in conversation with Germaine Greer encourages a more rousing answer to the question of whether feminism is still necessary. All this while fleshing out ground Renzetti has covered herself, from a pre-election Donald Trump rally to the postelection Women's March.

As she takes stock of contemporary culture and documents her own journey, Renzetti also checks her privilege. Along with the wisdom that comes from the lived experience of being a middle-aged feminist, there's a realization that she's been a white and middle-class one. That awareness is eye-opening, and necessary, in order to understand the challenge of sexism as compounded by racism and work toward a more intersectional feminism.

Shrewed's essays reflect a grappling with plurality – as a journalist, daughter, mother, wife, boss, employee and fellow human – and are written in different forms such as letters to her son, to her daughter and to her younger self. She is consciously conflicted about a tempting shift from journalistic objectivity to activism and settles on the thought that feminism is affirmed by her presence, first as a female newspaper editor and reporter and, later, a columnist.

In journalism there's the story you file, but there are always other iterations: the interior monologue and the other, sometimes more personal, story of what an encounter meant and taught. When Renzetti takes stock of some of her career assignments, the essays take many different formats including recounting four assignments (P.D. James is one of them) and what they taught her. Others are written as letters, and as she heads to her conclusion she offers an essay in the style of a (fictional) commencement address, inspired in part by the address Ephron gave at Wellesley College in 1996: "Find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there … that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women."

Intent is indeed pivotal, as Dean found during her research. She ran into "quite a lot of people who wanted to cut these women out of history precisely because they took advantage of their talents, and did so without turning those talents to the explicit support of feminism. It is viewed as an unforgivable lapse."

I first read Sharp and Shrewed each in turn, then interspersed them with one another. Although jousting with ingrained expectations of accommodation and likability, the books aren't exactly in dialogue with one another. The disparate women of Sharp can be adversarial (that's the point), whereas Shrewed has the explicit feeling that they – we – are all in it – this – together (that, too is the point). And there is something valuable in knowledge. Dean writes of needing more women like her subjects, "that pervasive sexism notwithstanding there are ways to cut through it."

Renzetti and Dean approach that idea very differently, but in many ways they are writing for the same audience. Looking ahead and back, both arrive at an exhortation to take up space and make noise. They are in good company. As Rebecca Traister, another journalist, put it: "The anger window is open."

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