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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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802125095
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 04/10/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 87,428
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

Notes 317

Index 349

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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
MaggieTiede More than 1 year ago
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion is a biography-cum-reckoning about the legacy of ten extraordinary women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Nora Ephron, Susan Sontag, Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, and Zora Neale Hurston. Occasionally Michelle Dean gets off zingers every bit as cool and cutting as those of her subjects, but usually her writing style is warm and nuanced, making Sharp feel like a meaningful conversation about these women rather than a mere tribute. It’s a choice I’m glad she made; the effect is more conversation than biography, which perhaps explains why Sharp is more readable than any biography has rights to be. While nothing could eclipse the women themselves, cameos from other literary greats–F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, H.G. Wells (along with his open marriage), and others–are charming and add a fun “cocktail party tidbit” touch to a book that is otherwise deep and thoughtful. As a writer, I also loved this book for selfish reasons: I’ve been going through a rough patch in my own creative writing (i.e., writer’s block), and reading about these incredible women cured it. The fact that they also went through periods of massive output and no output, periods of astonishingly good work and shockingly bad work, made me feel like writing is something I can accomplish after all. If you’re in need of that sort of pep talk, Sharp is just what the doctor ordered.