‘Argument Can Actually Be Joyful’: Women, Critics, and What It Means to Be Sharp

Photo: Jay Grabiec/John Midgely

Michelle Dean is a sharp writer who, in her first book, Sharp, tackles ten women, cultural critics from the 20th century, who have also been called “sharp” over the course of their careers. With lively, eloquent prose she writes about Dorothy Parker, Rebecca West, Hannah Arendt, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, Renata Adler, and Janet Malcolm — and how these women thrived in a time when criticism was, and in many ways still is, considered the domain of men. “That these women achieved what they did in the 20th century only makes them more remarkable,” Dean writes. “They came up in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything.”

I had the chance to speak with Dean via email about the nature of criticism, what it’s like being a woman critic, and the burden of expectations.

How did you come to writing? What has your career trajectory looked like?

I both really wanted to be a writer and feel like I fell ass-backwards into it. I had all these drafts on my hard drive, but I didn’t have the faintest idea of how one went about writing as a mode of earning a living. So instead I was a lawyer for about five years, at a big law firm, and while I was there I was desperately bored, and started commenting too much on Jezebel. And it kind of kept going from there, in that I started to meet writers and editors (the Jezebel comments section circa 2008 was lousy with them) and that led to blogs and the blogs led on to longer essays and now, well, here I am.

Why did you want to write Sharp? What do you want readers to take from the book?

I was interested in the position of women in criticism back in 2013, when there was a lot of talk about byline counts and VIDA studies. And the argument was that there hadn’t been so many women critics because of, well, patriarchy. I wanted to get more specifics than I had — I was only nominally familiar with some of the writers in Sharp — so I went looking for these women who did manage to break through the largely male-dominated profession. And then realized they had all sorts of links to each other I wanted to explore.

What I’d like readers to take from the book is something a little broader, though: the sense that argument can actually be joyful. And it can be generative, in that it can actually give us energy instead of tamping us down. Maybe it’s that I marinate on Twitter too much, but I think the internet has allowed us to forget that.

How do you define good criticism and bad criticism?

I tend to judge a piece of criticism by how smart I find the argument. This, I know, is not how everyone does it. I don’t mean, how much I agree with it, exactly, but more: how much does this open up the subject at hand? Does it show me things about it I didn’t already know? I like debate and argument, so I’m usually all right with disagreement, and I’m even all right if the critic doesn’t come to a clear thumbs up or thumbs down. But I need the disagreement to have some kind of line I can follow on the map. I like following an interesting mind along it.

Bad criticism recites rote arguments. The shame of rote arguments isn’t just that they’re clichés, though they are, but that they tend to hide from us why a critic is actually thinking what they’re thinking. In which case there’s no point in reading the review at all. I don’t care about the bare fact that anyone liked or didn’t like a book or movie; they can only interest me in that bare fact by writing an intelligent review.

The subtitle of Sharp is The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. What common themes do you see in the opinions of the women you profile in this book? How did you decide which women to include?

Well, they didn’t have a ton in common, content-wise, other than the adoption of a tone of ironic distance — but they often enough turned their critical sights on each other.

I don’t feel I picked these women so much as they picked themselves, or maybe I mean that American culture picked them: they tended to become famous critics in this country almost by accident. There was usually something of the Emperor and his lack of clothes in their rise, like they called something out that no one was willing to say before they did, and after that, they were famously caustic. And then these women all got defined in terms of each other, Susan Sontag greeted as the next Mary McCarthy, Dorothy Parker getting invoked all over the place. This was what connected them: how enmeshed their personal and professional lives became.

This approach had its limitations. For example, it meant that I didn’t cover everyone who was writing excellent or even influential critical work in the 20th century. Elizabeth Hardwick, Adrienne Rich, even Virginia Woolf: They’re not included. And then of course, because American literary and intellectual circles were mostly segregated, and white newspapers tended not to publish the work of women of color until quite late in the game, it means that this particular cadre was white. I put Zora Neale Hurston in the book to try to make sure, to paraphrase her a bit, that the whiteness of this corner of history was cast in sharp relief for the reader — that they realized there was a whole world of writing that wasn’t being included in this conversation about exceptional women.

But it was that position — of being greeted by the wider culture as some kind of “exceptional woman” — and then having to navigate both male and female expectations about that in the 20th century, before third-wave feminism, that the book was about. Because it’s a tricky wicket. People might say they love you and your work but when and if they turned on you — and it was usually when — the reaction could be very negative, and very difficult to process.

How do you deal with the expectations people have of you?

I’m lucky in that there aren’t too many of them, yet. I’m not really the kind of writer people project things onto, at least not yet. For me the trouble is usually the expectations I have for myself.

My friend Mark O’Connell wrote once about this occupational hazard critics have, that you’re so analytical you’re followed around by an “inner critic.” He said that after a while writing criticism, he’d “begun to detect a sort of hypertrophic enlargement of the part of my brain that looks at what the other parts are doing or planning to do and says, ‘Sorry, chief, but that’s not going to cut it.’” It is fair to say that I’m living that right now, where I tend to look at everything I do and see everything that might be wrong with it, and get paralyzed.

What kinds of research did you do to write about these women? Do you enjoy research as part of your writing process?

Oh, I pulled newspaper files, I went to archives. I developed a really insane library of everything these women had written and been written about them in my Dropbox, a kind of crazy amount of documentation, only half of which comes into the book at all.

I do love research. Though toward the end of the process I started to notice I was hiding behind the research. I had thoroughly fetishized it, and began to let the research become a means of procrastination from the risks of writing: If only I found another cache of newspaper writing, kept thinking, or some other body of documents, maybe eventually I’d come to feel like I’d written the best book I could. But eventually you have to actually just let the book be sort of unfinished, and hope it can struggle to its legs on its own.

When writing about Mary McCarthy, you describe an omnibus critique she wrote for The Nation about the state of criticism in her time. If you were to write such an omnibus critique, what would you tackle and why?

It’s funny. The state of criticism no longer seems about the quality, or lack thereof, of the critics in the landscape. It seems you always get something of a mixed bag in that regard — critics writing manifestoes about the state of criticism goes back eons, and the verdict is always that things are dire, that criticism has gone soft, whatever.
It just seems in the nature of critics that when we look around at each other, we’ll find each other wanting.

But this issue of the distortion of social media of our space to argue with each other, as friends, as feminists, as a country or a world: that to me seems like a truly new issue and one we could all stand to talk about a little more. I don’t think it’s as simple as social media making us nicer or meaner, but it does feel like it’s made us all more dishonest in an incremental way — I don’t think people mean to be so performative on social media, but it kind of creeps up on you. You start opining on something to pass the time, and very quickly you realize you are grandstanding without even meaning to. And then people write thinkpieces about the state of the culture based on your tweets. Which all starts to get very reactive, very fast.

What is it like being a woman critic today? How have things changed since the 1990s? What remains the same? 

Well, we are living in an explosion of women in criticism, and in a sense an explosion of criticism more generally. And I mean “explosion” in more than just the sense that the field is growing. Criticism is no longer the somewhat rarified activity that people only do in edited outlets; now there are, as you know, Goodreads critics. People always said, you know, “everyone’s a critic,” but now that is literally true.

On the one hand that makes things more democratic: There are more women weighing in on more things than ever before. But it also means there’s a ton of critical noise, about everything.
And some of that noise comes from people who are, themselves, complaining about the proliferation of say, feminist criticism. And some of it comes from trolls who among other things are this enormous, overwhelming distraction from the work we have to do.

Who are some of your favorite contemporary critics?

There are quite a lot and many are women. Laura Miller, Parul Sehgal, Ruth Franklin, Doreen St. Felix, Emily Nussbaum.

You’ve been developing a TV show over the last year. What has working in television been like? What are you looking to do in that field?

I never set out to work in television — like most things in my writing life, it felt like it happened by accident — but I’ve known for quite some time that I couldn’t make enough money in journalism and criticism to live, particularly not the kind I do either when I start reporting a longform story, which are taking on average eight months to a year to complete. If I can allow myself a moment of self-aggrandizement, Dorothy Parker, Joan Didion and Nora Ephron all took off for Hollywood for roughly the same reason: money.

But the first medium I wrote about critically was television, for Bitch and the American Prospect eons ago. And I still do, from time to time. So I’ve thought a lot about where television is and what I wish I was seeing on it. Which is something like more grounded work. It’s impolitic for someone of my age and political preoccupations, but I loved all those men-run shows from the early aughts, The Sopranos and The Wire and Deadwood and Six Feet Under. In the streaming universe there’s still room for that idiosyncratic and wild but very grounded, very humanistic work. I’m hoping to do that, both with what I’m working on now and a few other projects I’m starting to float.

We’ll see how it goes. Hollywood is so fickle, but it’s been interesting living out here, where people at least make a big show of liking you.
A refreshing change from New York publishing, in my experience.

Roxane Gay & Michelle Dean on the Women Critics of Sharp