How are cultural conversations shaped and who has the power to shape them? In her new book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion, Michelle Dean offers ten enlightening portraits of female writers and critics—from Susan Sontag to Joan Didion to Janet Malcolm—who have profoundly impacted the intellectual history of the 20th century, making the case that even when they lacked the same cultural capital, these women rivaled the men around them.
As the 2017 recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle and contributor to the Guardian, the New Yorker, the Nation, and other publications, Dean is well-poised to tackle the subject. Sharp is a compelling investigation of the intellectual careers of these women and how their professional relationships are interwoven. “The book is an exploration of what happens when the world confers exceptional status on you,” she told me.
A native Canadian, Dean currently lives in Los Angeles. I met up with her at a coffee shop there to discuss obstacles these women faced in being taken seriously as intellectuals, the infighting among some of them, and the importance of being an outsider, among other topics. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Hope Reese: Joan Didion once claimed that “certain doors of perception are more open to women.” What do you think?
Michelle Dean: It is true. I don’t think it’s an innate quality. It’s a result of women’s social position—which is changing, especially in cultural criticism, a field now dominated by women in a way it wasn’t even five years ago. Outsiders, in general, know something about a culture that insiders just don’t know. An observer is, by definition, an outsider, not a participant. There’s certainly also realms of experience that women know about more than men.
It can cut both ways. In Didion’s case, she happened to be small and frail-looking, and people mistook that for a pushover, or someone they could boss around. She was, obviously, not that. But she was able to use that to her advantage.
On the subject of physical appearance and manners—how did that influence how these women were perceived?
In general, their insights were treated as more trivial and less systematic. Lionel Trilling gets to write about freedom. And when Mary McCarthy writes about it, Isaiah Berlin is very dismissive, saying, “Oh, she was better at the relations between people”—as though that is separable from the concept of, say, freedom, or democracy. To a certain extent, some of them were able to use that to carve out their own voices, rather than being in the general din of young men trying to compete with the five slots in the Partisan Review every season. It helped, but it also hindered.
Sontag—I don’t think she was as obsessed with her appearance as commentators tend to say—but she was able to use that to have her voice heard. I sense she had an ambivalent relationship in having to do that, but it helped. An outsider, or a minority, or disempowered status can be useful. James Baldwin said the same thing about being black. So does Ta-Nehisi Coates.
About race—these women in the collection are mostly white. How does race matter in cultural criticism?
It matters. They’re also mostly Jewish. At the time they were writing, that was more of a restriction than it seems to be now. It’s not an accident that they were mostly Jewish—it helped accelerate their sense of outsider-ness. The concomitant of that is that black women writers are even more outside. Privy to even further insights. Sharp is an argument for outsider epistemology—and there’s more spaces to go. That’s one of the ways that we, as women critics and intellectuals, can pay it forward. The insight we should derive from the advances of these largely white women is that we do better as an intellectual or critical culture when we have more perspectives at the table.
Zora Neale Hurston is in the book largely as a piece of contradiction, to point out that although these women had access to certain insights and perspectives because of their outsider status, there were limitations. Their status as exceptional women who were invited to the table of whatever male writer intellectuals and critics happened to be doing was, in part, dependent on white privilege. It limited their perspective when Hannah Arendt came out against school desegregation—which is this huge blight on her career. You can see, in the exchanges she had with black writers about that, how few black people were in her circle, and how little she had chosen to incorporate their perspectives in her work. The upside of that was that she seemed to come to understand that. But not until after she had written a polemic.
You write about the divisions in second wave feminism. What do the divisions in feminism look like today? We have critics like Roxane Gay who feel that black women are left out of mainstream feminism, for instance.
There are still cleavages in feminism, and the one thing that Sharp led me to was the conclusion that we need to have more of a space for fighting in feminism. There is tons of fighting in feminism, and I have lots of feelings about how vicious the fighting gets. I think it’s partly because of ways women are socialized to have conflict, partly because of this strange white pathology about always having to demand everyone else’s solidarity without doing any work for it. But we could do better at organizing those conflicts, or seeing them as instructive, or generative, able to actually build out feminism rather than destroy it from within, which is the way they’re typically characterized. If we had more of a priority or value placed on argument in feminism—as in, it’s good for us to sit and hash these things out—I think we would end up with a better and more inclusive feminism for it.
A lot of the pushback from women of color who are feminists has been about people being afraid that conflict would somehow destroy us. The pathology of white femininity is that any kind of criticism is destructive.
Are there any of the ten women you wish you were able to learn more about?
To an extent, both Janet Malcolm and Renata Adler have not been written about enough for me to have an outside perspective beyond what I know from reading the documents and talking to them. And Nora Ephron—I wish we knew more about her mother. The mother is the whole key of Nora Ephron. And her father—I think nobody reads that book he wrote. It was such a revealing book, but not in the way he thinks it is. The tone is strange; it’s forced joviality. You get the impression that the plays they wrote, to the extent they’re entertaining, were about the mother. I would love to do a movie of Phoebe Ephron’s life. I think her life was fascinating; there was no reason for her to become what she did.
You write about Nora Ephron—do you think she’s recognized for her journalism, or has that been overlooked in light of her success as a screenwriter?
Sometimes people ask me what the seed of the book is, and it’s actually difficult to answer. But I think I’ve now traced it to first reading Nora’s journalism and thinking “this is really good, and not what I thought it was going to be.” It was very serious. I have always liked When Harry Met Sally, but I didn’t expect this. I do think she has been under-appreciated. I also think Janet Malcolm has been under-appreciated.
You recently tweeted: “I should write a whole separate thinkpiece on the appallingly large number of well-read men I have encountered on this book journey who breezily say, ‘I’ve never actually read Janet Malcolm.’”
It’s strange because I’m talking about men who know she’s famous, and they know who I mean, but they have never read her. She somehow has this reputation for having destroyed the honor of the profession in The Journalist and the Murderer—and that keeps coming up. Pauline Kael had the same thing with male film critics, where they felt she attacked their honor. The target often gets misidentified that way. I do think Janet has been really undersung. And I think Pauline has been undersung. Her comfort with not being consistent all the time is not all that different from Hannah Arendt. I know there will be certain precincts of NY that will think “Why is Hannah Arendt in this book? She’s much more serious than these other ladies.”
This is the problem: defining some things as serious and some things as not. To me, seriousness is a quality of engagement, not a choice of subject matter or product of learning.
Pauline Kael once wrote that her approach to criticism was “eclecticism.” What is your approach?
I am a bit like Kael in that I’m not very consistent. I tend to respond to the thing that is in front of me. I’m not really developing a system—and I think that’s the way it should be. My favorite Kael piece is Circles and Squares because that’s basically what she’s taking on: this attempt to systematize film criticism. I don’t like that it creates a barrier for entry into what I will broadly call “the appreciation of art”—that you’re supposed to know these things, know these systems in order to comment on something. That also comes from the general chip on my shoulder about not having a pedigree, not coming from a background of these people of coming from New York, went to Bard, studied with the writers of the New York Review of Books and proceeded to get an internship at the New York Review of Books, and then became critics, basically because they got that job.
I related to Kael’s [tough background]. Not feeling like it was easy for her to break in, in spite of considerable talent. People can get really down on people who display professional resentment openly, but I find it kind of beautiful in her.
You write that Didion, Sontag, and Kael were sometimes grouped together because of their California roots. Did they have a more difficult time being taken seriously than their East Coast peers?
Well, Didion had a very blessed career, so it’s hard to argue she had a rough time. I don’t think she earned enough money, and that was a problem for her. I love the letter where Howard B. Weeks accuses her of being a lifelong New Yorker. To a certain extent, the California thing helped inform the outsider perspective. Certainly Didion wielded it that way. Being from Sacramento was, for her, about being from somewhere that was not like everywhere else. It’s an interesting question. Sontag was immediately like, “I’m not really from California.” It’s amazing she made it out here this long. Apparently she was in line at the University of Chicago near Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and so thrilled to get to join the world she had longed to join for so long.
What does it mean for writers and critics to live in New York today? Is there an advantage?
None of these women ever felt that they were rich, or that they achieved real money-making status in magazine journalism. There tends to be a bit of a fiction that, in the past, you could make scads of money. They were moving around. But now, the underpinning of publishing is really coming off the wheels—thank you, Facebook! It’s quite funny to watch journalism turn to Facebook these last few weeks. It’s my theory, although I will not admit to having heard this, that every journalist hates Facebook, because we know that it basically killed us. So now that there’s something to get them for, it’s exciting! Because of that, the center of gravity has shifted to California a bit. Suddenly, there are a lot of literary novelists who are writing their own screenplays, their own pilot scripts. Because there’s an explosion of demand for content in California —which is one of the reasons I’m here—it’s really interesting. There’s still the romance of moving to New York, but it’s increasingly a romance that got co-opted by the upper-middle class.
New York as a center of gravity has changed, and will continue to change. I have just realized how many of my friends have actually left New York.
You had to make tough choices about which women to include in the book and who to leave out. Why wasn’t Ellen Willis included?
Ellen Willis is more aligned with feminism than any of the women in the book. Adrienne Rich also could’ve gone here but was also more aligned with feminism. It seems to me that the feminists were the people who joined up with the movement and were directly advocating on behalf of the movement did belong here at a certain point. And it was not because they weren’t as talented or anything like that. It was because the world responded to them differently.
People have said, “Well, Nora Ephron was pretty aligned with feminism.” She was, and she wasn’t. She wrote pretty critically about it. Most of these women, except for Hannah Arendt, eventually came around to calling themselves feminists. But the thing that they found more difficult were movement politics. When you fancy yourself an individual, it can be a little bit hard to deal with that. Those women just belong in a different book.
Some of these women got their start in women’s magazines. What role did that play in their career? Is there a parallel today?
Well, I love the Parker example of someone who started in women’s magazines. Especially because a couple years ago, people were really into rehabilitating women’s magazines from basically being glorified catalogues. I’m not totally against that trend, but there was also a little bit too much argument against the trivializing of the fashion. Fashion commentary in those magazines is not separable from the business of fashion, which is where I think the problem hits.
But women’s magazines have been a reliable source of money for people. Most of the women in my book either didn’t aspire to write for women’s magazines or eventually bit the hand that fed them, which is not always the thing you want to do. I don’t want to sound like I’m against everything that’s ever been published in a women’s magazine, but I think we could have a sense of humor about how, sometimes, it is trivializing.
Nora Ephron once said that “sisterhood is difficult.” Can you describe the infighting between some of these women?
I think a lot about the Sontag-McCarthy thing because they were the two that people thought of as constantly in conflict—but I’m not sure that these stories about Mary McCarthy saying, “Oh, you’re the new me,” actually happened. Those stories get told over and over, but I can’t source them well. They’re sort of rumors, usually repeated by men. Men like cat fights, so they will find them even when they don’t exist. It seems obvious that the relationship between McCarthy and Sontag was awkward. Especially because Sontag obviously considered herself a way more serious and better writer, which is one of her great faults. But I don’t know that it ever expressed itself as outright war and rivalry.
Between [Renata] Adler and Kael—Adler often says that she wrote the Kael thing in part because when she was young, that’s how you made your name. She had made her career early on by going after Norman Mailer in a pretty effective fashion. And she uses all the same techniques in The Perils of Pauline. I think she’s being genuine when she says that she really just was writing what she thought of as a critique. I think she thought she had played a fair game.
You critiqued Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection in The Guardian last year. Is it difficult for you to be critical of other women writers who you mostly agree with and respect?
It is, especially because criticism is so destructive. That one was tough because I really do love a lot of Solnit’s work and I’ve had more trouble with it in the last few years. For me, it’s not a political thing—it’s more knowing how it’s likely to be received.
I come from an analytical background. I was a lawyer before I was a writer. For me, all arguments are fair game and that doesn’t seem to be the case sometimes within the sphere of writers.
With cable TV, Netflix, and a plethora of other media, what material do you think of as worth a critic’s time and attention? Is everything fair game?
I do think everything is fair game. It’s horrible to write only about things that you dislike and it’s horrible to write only about things that you like. Most things are worthy of critical time and attention, but that doesn’t mean that every kind of critical attention is worthy. Say Hollywood superhero movies—they become such commercial products that, to a certain extent, I find attributing political meaning to them is frustrating.
I’m not talking about Black Panther. But Captain America—I don’t know why I’m reading political think pieces about Captain America. It was made in an advertiser’s lab. I don’t see the point. We’re inundated with criticism at the moment because the internet is basically the ideal medium for criticism from anyone and everyone. That means that people are writing about all sorts of things they don’t need to write about.
Who is your favorite woman intellectual today?
It’s obviously Janet Malcolm. It’s tricky because the kind of writing that these women did isn’t really published anymore. There are certain writers like Jacqueline Rose I love to read. And in the New York Review Books, Zadie Smith. I feel like her essays—and this is not meant to be an insult—are exercises in congeniality. A level of congeniality I wish I could possibly replicate. I think of Zoe Heller as being pretty great. A lot of the intellectuals have retreated into the academy. Nancy Fraser is important to me, even though she doesn’t really come up in this context.
It’s tough because we don’t live in an age that values intellectuals in any significant way. And I’ve mostly avoided judging the younger set of women writers, because it’s very hard to evaluate your contemporaries in real-time.