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MICHELLE DEAN discusses her nonfiction book SHARP with CARINA CHOCANO

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion (Grove Press)

“It would never have crossed my mind to object or to say, ‘You’re going to turn out to be wrong about me.’ It was a given in those days that if you were a woman and you wanted to do certain things, you were going to have to be the exception to the rule.”—Nora Ephron

Women in media must still, unfortunately, fight for their due and today they call out mansplainers on Twitter, wield power on the opinion pages, and start a movement with a single hashtag. But before that, there were women writers who shouted down the prevailing narrative of sexism and nepotism by taking to the printed page alone. Acclaimed literary and cultural critic Michelle Dean has expertly rendered a portrait of ten such revolutionary writers from the 1920s to the 1990s in her debut work, Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. We all know their names: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, Janet Malcolm. These women are united by what Dean terms as “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit, a claiming of power through writing rather than position.

Sharp is a vibrant and rich depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slanging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books as well as a considered portrayal of how these women came to be so influential in a climate where women were treated with derision by the critical establishment. Dean traces the lives of these extraordinary women as they intertwine and cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America, recounting friendships and rivalries, absent fathers and fractured families, professional triumphs and personal disappointments. Dean notes the essays and books that made their names, how their styles changed over the course of their careers, and how their work was received by their contemporaries.

In charting how these women grew as writers and became successes, Dean has also documented the male critical reaction—sometimes warm and even supportive but often uneasy. Appearance, age, and tone have long been the subtle knives used to undermine women in the public eye. Shrill and strident were as popular 75 years ago as they are today. Variously these women were chastised for being flighty, cold, arrogant, callous, haughty, intimidating, and pretentious, even as they were being hailed for their intelligence, brilliance, authority, and wit.

None of these women sought to be identified as a feminist writer—even as they supported the suffragette and later feminist movements—or to be particularly identified with her gender. Rather each sought to be a first-class writer. And what seems to have made each a success—despite or because of intense self-criticism and analysis—is the decision to write regardless of the concerns of others.

“To put it very simply,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “I have always done what I liked to do.”

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

Photo by John Midgely

Carina Chocano is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and Elle, and her writing has appeared in Vulture, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere. A former staff film and TV critic at the Los Angeles Times, she has also worked as a TV and book critic at Entertainment Weekly and a staff writer at Salon. She lives in Los Angeles.

Event date: 
Saturday, April 14, 2018 - 5:00pm
Event address: 
1818 N Vermont Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90027
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion Cover Image
$26.00
ISBN: 9780802125095
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grove Press - April 10th, 2018

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$16.95
ISBN: 9780544648944
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Mariner Books - August 8th, 2017