Meet the 10 Sharpest Women in the History of Cultural Criticism

This month, Grove Press releases one of the spring’s most anticipated works of literary history. In Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, Michelle Dean (who won the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing), explores the vital contributions of ten women to the field of cultural criticism. Each of these women—Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—produced work with a certain “sharpness,” with a precision and wit that provoked condescension, even outrage.

Gracefully combining biography and cultural criticism, Sharp is a long overdue examination of a literary history largely still seen as having been dominated by male writers. Here, Dean discusses some of the highlights of her book and how the act of writing it influenced her own work as a critic.

Michelle Dean (photo by John Midgely)

Amy Brady

Your book covers so many amazing writers over the course of a century. What surprised you the most while researching this book?

Michelle Dean

There are a number of little things that were nice discoveries. There was one point while sitting in Susan Sontag’s archive that I came across a letter that Philip Roth had once written her apologizing for a quote he gave in New York magazine, and I thought the letter was so cool. Ultimately the thing I came to wonder is why these kinds of stories [involving women writers] haven’t surfaced very well. There are reams of scholarship on mid-twentieth century writers, but with a few exceptions, the era is portrayed as quite male-dominated. I came to realize how men’s interactions with these women inflected their work, and vice versa.

Amy Brady

Something I enjoyed learning from your book is that Dorothy Parker, a legendary drinker of gin, practically never drank until she met her husband.  

Michelle Dean

Yeah, that’s an interesting story. Although I should say that I’m not totally on board with the image that Parker was this completely dysfunctional drunk. There was a class she used to teach in California towards the end of her life, and her students didn’t report her to be a drunk in the classroom. I think there’s a lot more to the Dorothy Parker drinking story than our popular vision of it.

Amy Brady

In your chapter on Pauline Kael, you discuss how she had written a review of Mary McCarthy’s The Group for the New York Review of Books, only to have them reject it and run a review by Norman Mailer instead. That Mailer review is incredibly sexist. How did this switcheroo happen?  

Michelle Dean

There are probably only two people who would know how the New York Review of Books came across Mailer’s review and when. One is Bob Silvers, who I never got the chance to talk to, and I’m actually not even sure he would know. The second would’ve been [Elizabeth] Hardwick. But she died before I started writing the book. But the archival materials [surrounding this story] can be really affecting. I think the letter that got to me the most was the one that Hardwick wrote to McCarthy about writing a parody of The Group, which is a maneuver I’ll never understand. That’s in McCarthy’s archive. It’s a really funny letter that doesn’t quite come to the point of apologizing. It’s actually something that I think almost any writer would dislike if a friend had written it. And it was clear that the letter came in some ways from a feeling of resentment that McCarthy had become such a popular success.

Amy Brady

I don’t think it’ll surprise many people that the women in your book put up with a lot of sexism. But were you ever surprised at just how much they had to deal with?

Michelle Dean

No, I expected it. However, I do think that the overwhelmingly negative reactions that some men had toward these women add an element of comedy to the book. I’m looking at that Mailer piece right now, and the review isn’t just about The Group. It’s about some feeling he had about Mary McCarthy that isn’t really hatred, exactly—it’s like he’s trying to hook her somehow. I find that interplay really interesting because I think most women who’ve had interactions with sexist men would recognize that sort of push and pull in their relationship. Even as he is angrily rejecting McCarthy’s work, it’s fairly obvious that his operatic display of anger is there to try and attract her to him. That’s not to say that Norman Mailer was in love with Mary McCarthy. But I think there was something very complicated going on with that sexist dynamic. So, no, I wasn’t surprised by the sexism, but I was sometimes surprised by the richness with which it was wielded—and by how it never seemed to achieve the men’s goal of discouraging these women to never write again.

Amy Brady

The only woman of color you discuss in your book is Zora Neale Hurston. Racism no doubt played a role in discouraging women of color from becoming critics. What other dynamics contributed to their absence in the field?

Michelle Dean

In general, it’s true that women of color were not publishing in standard white organs of intellectualism or journalism like the New York Review of Books. There were occasionally black men who got to write for these places, but even they had minor roles. I don’t mean that their writing was minor, but that the editors had this attitude of “once you publish James Baldwin, you just keep publishing James Baldwin.” The idea of expanding beyond one writer’s perspective never seemed to have occurred to the editors of the era. For this book, I decided to focus on women with certain kinds of public profiles, the kind that tended to bring men out of the shadows by getting them really angry. The women who achieved this were seen as exceptional in a way, and that kind of elevation wasn’t typically available to women writers of color.

So, the main reason [for their absence] is plainly racism, of course, but that’s not to say that women of color weren’t writing in this era. It was usually the case that they were writing for a more limited audience. There were certainly many black intellectuals writing at the same time as Hurston, but many of them were more aligned with a movement such as Civil Rights or feminism. Frankly, women writers of color were often more involved with feminism than some of the women in my book. In fact, many women of color felt like it wasn’t possible not to align themselves with a political movement, that it was a privilege of white identity to imagine oneself as an individual who doesn’t need to align with a collective demand to get heard.

Amy Brady

In the final chapters of your book you discuss Renata Adler who was downright despised by many of her peers. Was there any part of you that wanted to get people to think differently about her?

Michelle Dean

I think what was so funny about Adler is that she gets stereotyped as completely sour. I don’t need to correct any record on her; she speaks well enough for herself. But yes, there was this idea about her—one that I think applies to many of the other women in the book—that, because she was sharply analytical, she was seen as destructive. Many of these women—though I’m not sure this is true of Adler specifically—were shocked by the strong reactions that their work provoked. Because to them they were telling the truth and they didn’t realize that doing so would provoke such a horrified reaction in their audience. Even if in the long term they were proven right in their criticism, in the short term, the reactions were a lot to handle.

Amy Brady

Did the act of writing this book make you think differently about your own work or role as a woman critic?

Michelle Dean

I took some comfort in the fact that there’s a tradition of women writing criticism and in knowing that some of these experiences I’ve had with people overacting to my work is a part of that tradition. I want to add a caveat and say that I’m not trying to put myself in the same league with these women. However, I have certainly had times when I’d write something and people would have this overly strong reaction to it. And I would remember what happened to Dorothy Parker—that it’s just an occupational hazard in this line of work.

Also, writing this book got me thinking about how we’re in a moment where a certain amount of autobiography is included in critical writing. I’m not against that—it’s an interesting way to approach the subject. But the analytical way of writing used by many of these women has gone out of style. If there’s one hope I have for the book it’s that it brings back that analytical way of writing, even a little. Because there are great pleasures in analysis.

Amy Brady

What’s next for you?

Michelle Dean

I’m doing a lot of long form reporting and also I’m working on a novel that’s gradually surfacing. People tend to conceive of themselves as a novelist or a critic—I know I did for a long time—but one of the things that this book taught me is that you don’t have to be so limited.


Sharp by Michelle Dean
Grove Press
Published April 10, 2018

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.

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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