I gathered the women in this book under the sign of a compliment that every one of them received in their lives: they were called sharp.
The precise nature of their gifts varied, but they had in common the ability to write unforgettably. The world would not have been the same without Dorothy Parker's acid reflections on the absurdities of her life. Or Rebecca West's ability to sweep half the world's history into a first-person account of a single trip. Or Hannah Arendt's ideas about totalitarianism, or Mary McCarthy's fiction that took as its subject the strange consciousness of the princess among the trolls. Or Sontag's ideas about interpretation, or Pauline Kael's energetic swipes at filmmakers. Or Ephron's skepticism about the feminist movement, or Renata Adler's catalog of the foibles of those in power. Or Janet Malcolm's reflections on the perils and rewards of psychoanalysis and journalism. *
I wrote this book because this history has never been as well-known as it deserves to be, at least outside certain isolated precincts of New York. The forward march of American literature is usually chronicled by way of its male novelists: the Hemingways and Fitzgeralds, the Roths and Bellows and Salingers. There is little sense, in that version of the story, that women writers of those eras were doing much worth remembering. Even in more academic accounts, in "intellectual histories," it is generally assumed that men dominated the scene. Certainly, the so-called New York intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century are often identified as a male set. But my research showed otherwise. Men might have outnumbered women, demographically. But in the arguably more crucial matter of producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were right up to par—and often beyond it.