DescriptionThe ten brilliant women who are the focus of Sharp came from different backgrounds and had vastly divergent political and artistic opinions. But they all made a significant contribution to the cultural and intellectual history of America and ultimately changed the course of the twentieth century, in spite of the men who often undervalued or dismissed their work.
These ten women--Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm--are united by what Dean calls "sharpness," the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit. Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual beau monde of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of the Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books. It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves through their writing in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.
Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Sharp is a celebration of this group of extraordinary women, an engaging introduction to their works, and a testament to how anyone who feels powerless can claim the mantle of writer, and, perhaps, change the world.
Earn by promoting books
Earn money by sharing your favorite books through our Affiliate program.Become an affiliate
About the AuthorMichelle 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.
New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
New York Times Book Review Paperback Row
Named a Best Book of the Year by NPR's "Fresh Air", the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year by BuzzFeed
"[A] timely new book . . . a group biography of sorts, tracing a dozen female writers--from Dorothy Parker to Janet Malcolm--whose reviews, essays and other works compose a rough history of American thought from the 1920s to the '80s . . . 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 . . . urgent in its own right."--Kate Tuttle, Los Angeles Times
"In Sharp, Ms. Dean has pulled off a much rarer achievement: She's written an 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. This is a book designed to stir up discussion and dissension in its readers, beginning on the very first page of its preface . . . There's so much more to savor, ruminate on, learn from and, certainly, argue with in this splendid book. Sharp embodies the work of its subjects and manages the difficult intellectual and narrative feat of linking a bunch of disparate women writers, not via their topical interests, but by their sensibility: that of writers, with one foot in the mainstream of the American intellectual culture that men made, and one foot outside, sometimes by their own decision, and sometimes not. And each one of them, in this wonderful telling, is very much an intellectual and a writer to be heard."--Maureen Corrigan, Wall Street Journal
"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
"[Sharp] is, of course, a compliment with an edge . . . 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 norms of niceness and placed her analytical prowess front and center . . . As a missionary championing her subjects' 'oppositional spirit, ' Dean artfully shepherds the reader through the professional and personal ups and downs of each life . . . Dean traverses the intellectual landscape of the 20th century at an easy gallop--the boozy cocktail parties; the plotting of editors in their offices; the literary and political trench wars, aggressive essays thrown across the breach like grenades. She is frank, giving us the skinny."--Laura Jacobs, New York Times
"I never considered that these writers were not in the center of our shared intellectual history. But if anyone needed convincing, this work of readable scholarship should do it. Dean proves a sharp writer and critic herself."--Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Exceptional . . . Dean is a master of the art of summation, briskly anchoring readers who may be unfamiliar with these writers before moving on to make connections between them. But it is the connections that make this book . . . [Dean] weaves a gorgeous spiderweb of connections between lives touching lightly at points, to create a strong and satisfying analysis of the collective experience of these extraordinary women who led the way for us."--Meg Waite Clayton, San Francisco Chronicle
"For aspiring writers especially, these women are required reading."--Christian Lorentzen, New York
"Both deeply researched and uncommonly engrossing. Indeed, Sharp's pacing and wealth of anecdote compel one to consume the book like a novel . . . Dean's feat of intellectual wrangling is as impressive for what it holds together--the exquisite, creaking tension of ten arch individualists--as for what it deconstructs."--Dustin Illingworth, Paris Review
"An engaging look at 10 influential women--Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag and Nora Ephron among them--who 'made an art of having an opinion, ' often in the face of male dismissal."--People
"A riposte to this systematic decentering, providing a counter-narrative to the well-worn tales of American literary critical fathers and sons . . . Meticulously traces the intricate webs, both institutional and personal, that bound these women together and kept them afloat."--Ellen Wayland-Smith, The Millions
"Shrewd . . . The strength of Sharp lies in the way Dean stands up for the 'individual personality' of each of her subjects. And they were individuals, all."--Matthew Price, Newsday
"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
"A beautifully written, well-researched and much needed correction to criticism's historical record . . . [Dean] navigates from one layer to the next with grace. It amazes to think that this is her first book."--Amy Brady, Dallas Morning News
"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."--Chicago Review of Books
"Skillfully braiding critical insight with lively anecdote and biographical detail, Sharp doubles as a history of American literary-intellectual life in the twentieth century--and will undoubtedly leave readers pondering why the work of these writers has aged better than that of many of their contemporaries. It's a timely book that exemplifies the same qualities Dean finds in her subjects."--Library of America
"An ode to sharp-tongued women . . . Dean's book comes at a time of renewed attention to the history of feminism, and the most fascinating parts of the book deal with the complicated relationship these women bore to the movement."--In These Times
"Michelle Dean's Sharp is partly an effort to constellate the stars whose influence bears on the present generation of essaying American women . . . Dean is perceptive and revealing about the paths by which women were able to establish themselves as critics and essayists in the decades after the war . . . A timely and acute book."--Brian Dillon, 4Columns
"Ambitious . . . A useful introduction not just to [Dean's] writers' careers, but to the legendary literary establishments and institutions of the 20th century that they worked within and against . . . Dean can deliver a zinger as sharp as those of any of her subjects."--Los Angeles Review of Books
"Award-winning literary critic Michelle Dean has written a fascinating cultural history of 10 American women writers, including Dorothy Parker, Susan Sontag, and Pauline Kael. The (male-dominated) literary establishment of their time branded these women as too political, too lightweight, and too opinionated, but they persevered. The eye-opener: how vicious literary feuds could be and how critical many of these women were of other women writers."--Christian Science Monitor
"Sharp is a good quality in knives. It's a better quality in people . . . Dean manages to fit together the story of 10 lives in a compact, readable book. How very sharp of her."--Refinery29
"[Sharp] is a recalibration of the center of gravity of 20th-century intellectual history, of women writing in defiance of social hierarchy . . . Some chapters don't so much end as hang, with an invisible narrator's cocked eyebrow that suggests treasure ahead and an immediate turning of the page."--Globe and Mail (UK)
"In Sharp, Dean, a journalist and literary critic, recenters the New York intellectual world around its women . . . An insightful book that works well to introduce its subjects to newcomers while containing enough of Dean's analysis to be interesting to readers already familiar with them."--B.D. McClay, Weekly Standard
"I have to recommend Michelle Dean's Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, a delicious cultural history that comes out in April. It brings together some of the most influential social critics of the 20th century, including Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion, and shows how these glamorous iconoclasts forged their singular careers. Dean makes the convincing argument that women's voices--if not necessarily feminist ones--did far more to define the last century's intellectual life than we realize."--Michelle Goldberg, New York Times
"Few readers could fail to be impressed by both the research behind and readability of this first book by Dean . . . [A] stunning and highly accessible introduction to a group of important writers."--Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"By portraying intrepidly and eloquently opinionated and highly influential women writers, journalist and critic Dean brings a uniquely intellectual slant to the current renaissance in women's history via group biographies . . . With the word ferocity appearing with satisfying frequency, Dean presents shrewd, discerning, fresh, and crisply composed interpretations of the temperaments, experiences, and sophisticated trailblazing works of these gutsy and transformative thinkers."--Donna Seaman, Booklist
"[H]owever different these women may have been from each other, the author ably explains the ways in which their lives intersected, the conversations they had, and the goals they shared . . . engaging portraits of brilliant minds."--Kirkus Reviews
"This is such a great idea for a book, and Michelle Dean carries it off, showing us the complexities of her fascinating, extraordinary subjects, in print and out in the world. Dean writes with vigor, depth, knowledge and absorption, and as a result Sharp is a real achievement."--Meg Wolitzer, New York Times-bestselling author of The Interestings and The Female Persuasion
"Michelle Dean has delivered an exquisite examination--both rigorous and compassionate--of what it has meant to be a woman with a public voice and the power to use it critically. This book is ferociously good."--Rebecca Traister, New York Times-bestselling author of All the Single Ladies
"There can't be enough cultural histories which make the point that a woman intellectual must represent her own mind, and not the collective mind of all her 'sisters.' Sharp is a brisk, entertaining, well-researched reminder that it's impossible to write--or think--without making life very messy for oneself, but to do so is an achievement well worth the pains."--Sheila Heti, author of How Should A Person Be?
"An elegant, incisive, and richly detailed account of the lives of ten extraordinary women. I didn't realize how badly I wanted a book on exactly this subject until I started reading it. Sharp is not simply a collection of distinct biographical essays, but a vital composite portrait of the intellectual life of twentieth-century America. It's also a lot more fun to read than a deeply researched study of a group of intellectuals has any business being. A necessary book by a wonderful writer."--Mark O'Connell, author of To Be a Machine
"An insightful look at some of the wisest and most influential women writers . . . engaging, empowering, and insightful."--Apartment Therapy