by Sharon Olinka
Alice Denham’s memoir is a genuinely subversive book that questions how we make flawed celebrities into authorities that determine literary standards. In elegant prose she describes how as an idealistic young writer in the 1950s she moves to New York to be a writer, and the heady freedom of parties, theater, and lovers (including James Dean) that ensues. Unfortunately she comes up against what Tillie Olsen in Silences called “the literary atmosphere that sets writers against one another, breeds the feeling that writers are in competition with each other. (In its extremist sense, Hemingway’s feeling that the measure of success would be ‘to knock Tolstoy out of the prize ring.’)”
Denham believes in something better, and more honorable. She believes, along with Olsen, that “literature is a place for generosity and affection, and hunger for equals—not a prize-fight ring.” This helps her endure Norman Mailer’s silly behavior, Philip Roth’s lechery, and the indifference of other writers, editors, and publishers who do not give her the respect she deserves. Denham does find help along the way, has her first novel published, and after many bitter misadventures and well-earned triumphs, becomes a founder of the feminist organization NOW in the 1970s.
It’s discernment that keeps Denham sane through all this—an ability to tell an unvarnished truth, and to poke gleeful fun at stupidity with a Swiftian cutting edge. No one escapes that scathing wit, even Denham herself. Her life is a testimony to how a woman’s talents could be falsely underestimated—see the chapter about her publication in Playboy—and how that same woman outlives the upheavals of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s to live a productive and fulfilled life as a writer. In Denham’s view, an emperor full of crap doesn’t deserve new clothes. She cautions us against further deception and we trust her voice, which gives counsel as well as pleasure.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2008 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2008