Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

by Michelle Dean


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The ten brilliant women who are the focus of Sharp came from different backgrounds and had vastly divergent political and artistic opinions. But they all made a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of America and ultimately changed the course of the twentieth century, in spite of the men who often undervalued or dismissed their work.

These ten women—Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—are united by what Dean calls “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit. Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books. It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves through their writing in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.

Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is a celebration of this group of extraordinary women, an engaging introduction to their works, and a testament to how anyone who feels powerless can claim the mantle of writer, and, perhaps, change the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125095
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 644,955
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, and the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. A contributing editor at the New Republic, she has written for the New Yorker, Nation, New York Times Magazine, Slate, New York Magazine, Elle, Harper’s, and BuzzFeed. She lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Chapter 1 Parker 1

Chapter 2 West 31

Chapter 3 West & Hurston 59

Chapter 4 Arendt 65

Chapter 5 McCarthy 92

Chapter 6 Parker & Arendt 122

Chapter 7 Arendt & McCarthy 132

Chapter 8 Sontag 146

Chapter 9 Kael 175

Chapter 10 Didion 203

Chapter 11 Ephron 229

Chapter 12 Arendt & McCarthy & Hellman 253

Chapter 13 Adler 260

Chapter 14 Malcolm 284

Afterword 309

Note on Sources 313

Bibliography 315

Interview Between Michelle Dean and Roxanne Gay 317

The Problem with "Speaking for Women" 327

Notes 331

Index 363

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