Dean, Michelle. Sharp: the Women Who Have Made an Art of Having an Opinion. New York: Grove Press, 2018.
Reason read: this was a gift from my sister. Of course I have to read it!
Ten women: Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm. What do all these women have in common, besides writing and being female? They all had sharp tongues and were not afraid to speak their minds. Michelle Dean sets out to give a mini biography of each “sharp” woman, make connections between them, and illustrate why they made her sharp list.
As an aside, I was confused by Dean’s treatment of Zora Neale Hurston in the West & Hurston chapter (p 59). It was obvious Hurston was not to be included as a “sharp” woman, so why include her as a connection to Rebecca West? Why include her in the chapter’s title? West and Hurston did not have much in common. In fact, the introduction of the Hurston material at the end of the chapter is clunky at best. Dean makes the lukewarm transition thus – Rebecca West had been out of her league covering a trial involving a lynching. Admittedly, Black journalist Ida B. Wells would have been more suited to the cause and, oh by the way, another Black writer who understood the state of prejudice and racism of the 1940s was Zora Neale Hurston. Dean then goes on to dedicate three pages to Hurston’s life and writing without much connectivity to Rebecca West or to the rest of the book. As a result those three pages end up sounding like an abbreviated and unintentional detour.
Additionally, were there absolutely no sharp women of color Dean could have included in her book; no one for more than a token few pages? I find it hard to believe there was not one woman of color who raised her voice loud enough to be heard by Dean.
Author fact: Dean won the 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Book trivia: This would have been a much richer book if Dean had secured permission to include one photographic portrait of each personality. As it was, only six of the ten sharp women made the cover. The other four were relegated to the back.