Sharp (Dean)

Sharp:  Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion
MIchelle Dean, 2018year
Grove Atlantic
384 pp.

Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm—these brilliant women are the central figures of Sharp.

Their lives intertwine as they cut through the cultural and intellectual history of America in the twentieth century, arguing as fervently with each other as they did with the sexist attitudes of the men who often undervalued their work as critics and essayists.

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.

Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is an enthralling exploration of how a group of brilliant women became central figures in the world of letters despite the many obstacles facing them, a testament to how anyone not in a position of power can claim the mantle of writer and, perhaps, help change the world. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—ca. 1978 (?)
Raised—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Education—B.A., University of Toronto; L.L.M, McGill University
Awards—National Book Critics Circle Citation for Reviewing
Currently—lives in Los Angeles, California, USA

Michelle Dean is a Canadian author, journalist, and former lawyer who now lives in Los Angeles, California. The child of parents born in Quebec, she grew up in the suburbs of Ottawa. She earned her B.A. from Toronto University and, in 2005, a law degree from McGill University.

After law school Dean left Canada for New York City where she spent five years working as an attorney in a large corporate law firm. In 2010, not particularly happy with the law (and laid off), Dean returned to Canada, settling in Toronto to pursue freelance journalism. Shortly after, however, she returned to New York to continue her writing career, then on to Los Angeles, California.

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. In 2016 she received the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

Her book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Opinion was released to favorable reviews in 2018. (Adapted from various online sources.)

Book Reviews
A virtue of [Dean's] book is that it shows how each woman, by wielding a pen as if it were a scalpel or a scimitar, confounded the gender norm of niceness and placed her analytical prowess front and center. Among 20th-century intellectuals, "men might have outnumbered women, demographically," Dean writes, 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."… Dean artfully shepherds the reader through the professional and personal ups and downs of each life, keeping an eye on the affinities—a taste for battle, an ethic of intellectual honesty—that made some of them allies (McCarthy and Arendt, Arendt and Adler) and drove others apart (McCarthy and Sontag, Adler and Kael).
Laura Jacobs - New York Times Book Review

[A]n entertaining and erudite cultural history of selected female thinkers who "came up in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything." Indeed, Ms. Dean herself performs the work of a public intellectual by doing justice to the substance of her subjects’ work, while also conveying―through her own wit and lively opinions―why their work matters.
Maureen Corrigan - Wall Street Journal

[A] timely new book.… Dean deftly and often elegantly traces these women’s arguments about race, politics and gender.… The book is consistently entertaining and often truly provocative―especially for anyone who makes or loves art or literature.… [U]rgent in its own right.
Kate Tuttle - Los Angeles Times

Sharp is a dinner party you want to be at.… Dean’s literary bash is as stimulating and insightful as its roster of guests. She not only encapsulates their biographies and achievements with remarkable concision, but also connects the dots between them.… Sharp is a wonderful celebration of some truly gutsy, brilliant women.
Heller McAlpin - NPR

In a happy case of it takes one to know one, Michelle Dean has delivered a penetrating book about penetrating American writers.… Drawing on close readings of their works and other sources, Dean succinctly charts how these women broke into public discourse and how they were viewed and received . . . Dean serves one incisive sentence after another.
Jim Higgins - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A sagacious, stylish survey of 10 female essayists, critics, scholars and memoirists.… Not just a tribute to 10 remarkable women but to virtues that all writers―male and female alike―can aspire to: toughness, tenacity and clear-headed thinking.
Peter Tonguette - Columbus Dispatch

(Starred review.) Few readers could fail to be impressed by both the research behind and readability of this first book by Dean…. The book has a few glitches.… Taken as a whole, however, this is a stunning…introduction to a group of important writers.
Publishers Weekly

What distinguishes all of these writers, in Dean’s telling, are traits encapsulated by the title adjective: wit, verbal precision, and a kind of polemical fearlessness that made all ten women stand out in a culture very much dominated by men.
Library Journal

[A] uniquely intellectual slant to the current renaissance in women’s historys.… With the word ferocity appearing with satisfying frequency, Dean presents shrewd, discerning, fresh, and crisply composed interpretations of… transformative thinkers. —Donna Seaman

…20th-century women whose lives had a deep impact on culture.… [E]ngaging portraits of brilliant minds. A useful take on significant writers "in a world that was not eager to hear women's opinions about anything."
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for SHARP … then take off on your own:

1. Define what Michelle Dean means by referring to the women in her new book as "sharp." How, as she explains in her preface, how does that description cut differently with respect to gender?

2. The 10 women in Sharp defied female expectations of the 20th century. How much, if at all, do you think cultural expectations for female behavoir have changed in the early 21st century?

3. Of the 10 writers, are there any you're familiar with, whose works you've read?

4. Of the 10 profiles, which did you find most engaging? Whom did you come away wishing you could meet at a dinner party (as NPR's reviewer Heller McAlpin put it)? Which of the women did you not find so admirable?

5. Is there anyone who deserved to be included in Dean's book but wasn't … or who was included but could have been left out? What about Virginia Woolf or Camille Paglia, or perhaps an expanded role for Zora Neale Hurston, who receives only a cameo appearance?

6. Talk about the issues that made some of the women allies (McCarthy and Arendt, Arendt and Adler) and some of them foes (McCarthy and Sontag, Adler and Kael).

7. Neither Joan Didion (gasp!) nor Hannah Arendt supported feminism. Why?

8. How does Dean describe the milieu of the 20th century intellectual life with its cocktail parties and political and literary warfare. Do we have anything similar today?

(Questoins by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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