Natalie Daher | Longreads | April 2018 | 15 minutes (4,014 words)
The subjects of cultural critic Michelle Dean’s new book Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion — including Dorothy Parker, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion and Nora Ephron — have appeared in Dean’s writing and interviews again and again over the years. It’s not difficult to see how Dean would develop a fascination with opinionated women — she is one herself. Lawyer-turned-crime reporter, literary critic, and Gawker alumnus, Michelle Dean’s has had her own “sharp” opinions on topics ranging from fashion to politics, from #MeToo to the Amityville Horror.
The book is more than just a series of biographical sketches. Dean is fascinated by the connections between these literary women — their real-life relationships, their debates, and the ways they were pitted against each other in a male-dominated field.
We spoke by phone between New York and Los Angeles and discussed writing about famous writers, the media, editors, and feminism.
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You started your career as a lawyer, then you transitioned into journalism. You’ve written about crime, law, women, books — how did those experiences prepare you to write this first book?
Well, it’s funny, right, because by the time you actually publish a book, you’re somewhat beyond it. The crime stuff came in as I was finishing the book.
I don’t come from a particularly literary background. I only came to think about literary life relatively late. I was an undergraduate debater, which is a deeply nerdy and embarrassing thing to admit, but also really formative for me. I ended up in law school by a circuitous route.
I think you can see a lot of that spirit in the book, because there’s one level on which the book is just an argument for debate, or for spirited argument, which is something that you’d think the world doesn’t lack right now. Except that a lot of it isn’t reasoned, or witty, or eloquent, or perceptive. It’s just yelling all the time. Lawyering is thinking and reasoning by principle. In that sense, it ties into sharpness pretty easily.