Dean deftly and often elegantly traces these women's arguments about race, politics and gender, making a kind of narrative of the ideas at play in the pages of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Review of Books, the Partisan Review and other publications ... Dean's prose is mostly plainspoken, and often persuasive. The book is consistently entertaining and often truly provocative — especially for anyone who makes or loves art or literature ... It would have been nice to see Dean include more critics of color, but the world she's writing about was even less diverse than publishing and journalism are now ... the women Dean profiles here were willing to be unpopular. That made them not only sharp, but brave.
She is as interested in the lives of its [her book's] subjects as she is in their writing, and provides a useful introduction not just to her writers’ careers but to the legendary literary establishments and institutions of the 20th century that they worked within and against ... The downside to Dean’s focus on the lives of her subjects is that their writing sometimes takes a backseat to their lives. I would have appreciated more time devoted to careful readings of West’s journalism and less to her relationship with H. G. Wells, more analysis of McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Group and less of her marriage to Edmund Wilson. When Dean does get down in the weeds and engage with what these writers actually wrote, she often does it quite well, and the book’s strength is in its accounts of debates among public intellectuals ... But Sharp is, in many ways, a missed opportunity ... Dean acknowledges in her introduction that many of the women she writes about 'came from similar backgrounds: white, and often Jewish, and middle-class.' Ultimately she is not very interested in investigating the way that these similarities affected and enabled their writing, and fair enough: the book is focused on gender rather than race, religion, or class. But the effect of this choice is that Dean repeats the same injustices she professes to despise ... Dean herself has the power to recognize [Zora Neale] Hurston — along with a number of other women writers of color — as part of this cohort, to write her into the canon from which she’s been excluded ... it is a shame that a book with so much potential and ambition, a book that seeks to define a century of American literary and intellectual history formed by women, is so narrow in its sense of that history.
...an entertaining and erudite cultural history of selected female thinkers ... Indeed, Ms. Dean herself performs the work of a public intellectual by doing justice to the substance of her subjects’ work, while also conveying—through her own wit and lively opinions—why their work matters ... Along with incisive readings of their most emblematic work, Ms. Dean skillfully encapsulates each of these women’s life stories, focusing on their mostly roundabout and bumpy paths to a public career ... There’s so much more to savor, ruminate on, learn from and, certainly, argue with in this splendid book.