Bookforum talks to Michelle Dean

At first, it might be hard to see the connection between the ten critics profiled in Michelle Dean’s Sharp. Writers such as Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Janet Malcolm, and Nora Ephron were singular talents—each an uneasy fit for any neat label. What links them, Dean writes, was that they were “sharp”—the word was often used as an insult—and possessed a keen critical facility that was underappreciated at the time but has become extremely influential. Dean’s book is an alternative to the usual, single-subject biography, which often considered “these women in isolation, a phenomenon unto herself.” Instead, Dean looks at the ways in which their work collectively shaped the writing and criticism of their eras, and the critics who came later.

Dean and I talked on the phone about breaking down traditional cultural barriers, the creation and destruction of self-mythologies, and the shifting meaning of “serious” literature.

Early on in the book, you write that in “producing work worth remembering, the work that defined the terms of their scene, the women were up to par and often beyond it.” Within that line, I was fascinated by the phrase “the terms of their scene.” What role did social context play in making these women such astute critics?

They were coming up at a time where, even more so than now, women’s voices and women’s intelligence weren’t valued equally. That shaped everything they did. They weren’t complete outsiders—they were inside some things, and outside of others, but that sense of not being like everybody else in the room really informed the kind of criticism they could do. It made them in some ways more incisive as a group than they’d have otherwise been. That’s a gift and a curse of not being part of the ruling class: It gives you a perspective on the things that are going on, and the ability to say it instead of keeping quiet because of some social convention that you’re supposed to respect.

Often, the work of women writers was put in its own diminished category. Can you talk a little bit about how the work of someone like Mary McCarthy, for example, was received?

The great example for that is Isaiah Berlin saying about her, “She was no good on abstract ideas. She was fine on life in general. People. Society. People’s reactions.” That is a ridiculous dichotomy. He was trying to diminish any insights she might have had into politics as something that was merely just social life or lunch on the quad. Men seemed to have an idea that abstract thought was the only type of thought that could matter.

It was a limitation to believe that in order to be serious you had to work within that particular level of abstraction. That’s the trick when you step in to certain structures of power. You learn the language, and you assume that the language is there for a reason, and that the rules of engagement are there because they’ve been the product of many years of rational discourse. But when you look a little closer, you ask, What about politics is totally divorceable from relationships between people?

A lot of intellectual warfare did boil down to personalities, and personality conflicts between people, rather than total philosophical differences. In that sense you could have a great insight into American communism simply by being a keen observer of people in the way that Mary was.

It’s funny, right before I read Sharp, I was complaining about being friends with leftist men who parade their performative good politics online but are absolutely awful to women in their personal lives. And my friend told me I really need to read The Company She Keeps.

That book is my favorite of Mary’s actually. There’s something about it that captures this contemporary moment, and it’s so sad that nobody reads it. In the most famous story, “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit,” she’s having sex with a stranger. It’s pretty radical for the early 1930s, when it was published. These older books have things to teach us and we don’t talk about them as much as we should. The rest of the stories are also mostly about leftist men and how awful they are. Mary tended to think everybody was awful—it wasn’t totally a gendered thing—but there wasdefinitely something in there that mirrors this contemporary conversation.

You write about how Dorothy Parker’s sardonic wit was dismissed as “not serious.” How have the ways in which we marginalize women writers changed?

It’s sad that we still have this problem. But I do think that part of the way the internet has infected everything, is that there is a certain greater legitimacy attributed to the sardonic voice that I’m talking about. In fact, I think it’s inherent in most women writers now, this mocking, ironic tone.

The way that men have traditionally done it, on the page, is they usually take refuge in the abstraction that I was talking about before. They build up these edifices of knowledge and then the mastery of the abstract edifice of the discipline is the whole point. I can’t believe I keep bringing this up in interviews, but there was this GIF going around recently of Hannah Arendt interviewed on a German television show. She was asked, “What do you hope to do with your work? What do you hope to influence?” And she said, “I think that’s a very gendered question. It’s a very male thing to want to influence. I’m here to understand.”

And it does seem to me in the general current of the ideal of male intellectualism, the idea is that one eventually becomes some sort of senior gatekeeper who understands everything and is all-knowing and wise. And women have both had more trouble assuming that position, and also sort of rejected it. I don’t think it’s an accident that everyone from Hannah Arendt to somebody like Judith Butler is really talking about currents that are going on in the rest of the populace, too, rather than just sitting away from the way things are working on the ground, and calling yourself an expert without having any experience.

People no longer accept big claims of expertise that men used to be able to make. Authority is no longer seen as derived solely from institutional credentials or abstracted universalities about some great American subject. Now people want to hear more about actual individual experiences. On the whole, that’s been useful, in terms of allowing women, people of color, and other marginalized communities to break through and gain some authority, but it’s a different kind of authority than intellectualism. We’re in the middle of a vast renegotiation of these terms.

This reminds me of your section about Dorothy Parker taking down the men of the Algonquin Roundtable. These men were attempting to create their own mythologies. Do you think Parker intended to destroy that self-mythologizing?

Parker’s great talent was for making sure that people didn’t get too full of themselves, though she also thought that they were genuinely funny.

Joan Didion was accused of constructing a big self-mythology on the page, but I don’t think she did anything more than construct a writerly persona—it’s sort of unavoidable. In that sense it’s not gendered. It was a little easier for men, particularly in the era I was writing about, to drink their own Kool-Aid. It was harder for women to do that because there were so many forces constantly trying to trivialize them.

Can you talk about the role of gossip in these writers’ work?

I think a lot of people see the value in gossip. These people left incredible records of gossip. Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy’s letters are often praised for being so full of juicy gossip, because they were relatively honest with each other about what they thought about other people. Gossiping is a function of doing the kind of writing that these women were doing, which is socially observant writing. It had something to do with the general hyper-articulate lifestyle that pervaded the lives of these women where everything was about talking about things, which made them excellent conversationalists.

How do you think about the fact that these circles were so insular?

Obviously, these people are read in a limited fashion, but there are lots of ways to be influential. One way is the number of readers you get, but another is just being someone who is often referenced. And I think that the vast majority of these writers are like that.

This is the kind of work that the rest of us, now, get to do. Even if you’re insular, it doesn’t mean you’re not still having an effect on the culture, and you’re still informing what other people are doing.

In the conclusion there’s a line, “It’s not very sisterly to believe that one stands out from the pack.” How were you able to strike that balance between solidarity and acknowledging that talent is always going to be a factor?

The thing about solidarity in general is that it’s actually work. We don’t all really owe each other a reason because we happen to be women or even because we happen to be women who identify as feminists. If you look at solidarity that way—if you look at it as always work and never over—then these questions of talent aren’t as pressing. That line is a bit sarcastic or ironic. The fact that people do often feel like women, if they achieve an exceptional level in any discipline, are somehow placing themselves above their sisters, is a weird perspective to me.

In terms of solidarity within the book, it’s a limited set of writers. Intellectuals in the mid-century were often very interested in the African American struggle but in terms of African American writers they tended to select very few to publish in their own journals. The black writers who were published at this time were typically not critics or social critics. The decision I ultimately made was I couldn’t go back and fix the past and I was worried about seeming to excuse it at any point.

Criticism is richer now that more people have a voice. That’s a continuation of one of the book’s main points: the criticism of the mid-century was richer for the women having a different perspective than men. I hope that is something we continue to develop as the critical discourse becomes more inclusive.

Rebecca Schuh is a writer based in Brooklyn.