Sharp Women Writers: An Interview With Michelle Dean

On Didion, Arendt, Malcolm, Ephron and other women writers who made an art of having an opinion.

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.

I have had a really strange professional trajectory, and so it’s hard to exactly trace what the roots of all these things are. When I started writing more seriously, which I also did sort of accidentally, I felt like I had all this catching up to do. I started reading a lot of Janet Malcolm. I’d done a bit of work on Hannah Arendt in school. Basically, reading to catch up to try and be more well-versed in the tradition [in which] I was writing is what led to “Sharp.”

Many of the women you’ve written about have been reduced to caricatures in some ways. Didion is on T-shirts now. What were some of the challenges in presenting their stories in new ways?

Well, it depends on who you’re talking about, because some of them have biographies, and some of them do not. Ephron had died not too long before I had started this project, [and] there is now a biography of Nora Ephron.

From my perspective, the thing that hadn’t been written about is some of the connections between these people that I was seeing through the biographies that did exist, or when I started to pull up press clips out of idle curiosity. I saw them referring to each other, being in arguments with each other. Those things are interesting, and they weren’t being talked about. I didn’t really worry too much about whether I had a fresh take, exactly.

If we’re talking Didion, I see her a little differently than most people do. The first stuff that I read of hers was actually the political essays. I didn’t come to Didion through her personal essay stuff. I don’t mean to denigrate that work but it’s mostly not what spoke to me. The caricature of Didion that you’re talking about has come mostly out of the personal essay work, and people have responded to that, right? She’s often characterized as solely a personal essayist, and I don’t know that that’s even close to true. In that sense, I knew that my vision was slightly different.

The thing that hadn’t been written about… is some of the connections between these people… I saw them referring to each other, being in arguments with each other.

I’d run into Ephron’s journalism earlier. I’m not even sure how I first came across Crazy Salad, but I had been aware of it for quite some time, and how actually serious it was. It wasn’t the caricature of Nora Ephron that I had grown up with, which was director of romantic comedies, some of which were better than others. But I was aware that she had this brilliant body of work that people didn’t talk quite as much about, at the time. Certainly some of the people, like Janet Malcolm and Renata Adler, had not necessarily been written about in the career overview kind of way.

I think the challenge is: do you do the research? Do you do the work? Do you not just write about part of a writer’s life in total isolation from anything else they may have done? Because whenever people start to write essays — I guess Didion is just the obvious example, about how privileged she is and how she’s not in touch with anything but herself — I just wonder if people didn’t read the journalism, if they’re not aware that it exists.

I’m not saying that my take is only mine. In general, the thing you learn when you write a lot of nonfiction is that it’s not that hard to say something different if you actually do the research, because it always reveals things that people aren’t totally aware of and that aren’t captured.

Yeah, the book put the subjects in conversation with one another in a way that I hadn’t seen before. You were also contextualizing their work and how they were viewed at the time.

Well, the reception of their work is one of the narrative threads of the book. The reception was maybe some of the funnest stuff, because you’d find things like people saying Susan Sontag is “a very bright girl,” or something like that.

The way that people casually, and in a sexist way of course, dismiss these women was just kind of a delight to find. Even now if you look at something like Norman Mailer trashing “The Group” in the New York Review of Books, there’s something kind of funny about how upset he is about it. I don’t even think it’s Mary’s best book myself, but there’s something amusing about the occasional hysteria that this [book] would drum up. I say that worrying that I’m trivializing the frustration that caused [her]. I don’t mean to do that but it’s kind of — you have to laugh or else you cry.

After you research the critical history of anything, you start to have a sense of humor about the value of a review that comes out when a book is initially released. You start to realize how wildly out of sync [contemporary reviewers tend to be] with whatever later opinion of the book developed after people had the chance to digest it and think about it.

The reception adds an element of absurdity to the whole thing, because no matter what, even when [reviewers] were trying to praise these women, sometimes the language is crazy. There’s a Carolyn Heilbrun piece about Susan Sontag that cracks me up every time I read it. It’s meant to be totally complimentary. Carolyn Heilbrun was no slouch herself intellectually or as a writer, but it’s just that she got in front of Sontag and thought, “I’m in love with this woman,” and then wrote this completely crazy profile where she was like, “There’s no point in my even quoting her words because she’s so amazing.”

Another area that you touch on is that when these women critique media or journalism, of course everybody piles on, especially men.

Malcolm is the best example of that. She writes The Journalist and the Murderer, and it wasn’t only men, but it was definitely a lot of men. I did interview her, and I remember I asked her, did she think her thesis was more controversial just because it was advanced by a woman? And she said, yes, she did think that. There’s something about their tone and about the position that they occupied within — I don’t know — journalism or intellectualism or any of these places, that just really pissed men off in a way that we can now sort of laugh at a little bit.

In Malcolm’s case for example, it’s like she had maligned male honor in some way with the first line* of The Journalist and the Murderer, and it was confusing. It’s confusing to read now, especially because in subsequent eras, it’s been largely agreed that Malcolm is right. There could be some argument about whether in all cases there’s the same element of coercion and manipulation as there was in the case that she described, but I think everybody has a sense now that there’s something at the heart of journalism that is about manipulating the subject. It’s just interesting because it did feel like men were very invested [in] insisting this was an honorable profession.

Many of the women — and you wrote this too — wanted to be public figures, even if it didn’t happen for them until their 40s. They wanted a seat at the table and they went after it. Society didn’t like that, still doesn’t really like it now. There’s just this complexity over ego, with women owning their ego. You have to have some degree of ego if you’re going to insert your opinion into the world.

One of the reasons it took me so long in my life to actually become a writer is I assumed that writing was a thing that you were born with, an innate quality, that you had this innate confidence to do. Until I was in my late 20s, I didn’t know anybody who made a living as a writer. It was something completely beyond my imagination.

One of the themes of the book is that the confidence is sometimes opposed. You think about Mary McCarthy asking a friend of hers, “Do you like the The Group?” Knowing that [the friend is] probably going to say “no,” she asks it anyway. There’s something very relatable to me about that.

The reception was maybe some of the funnest stuff, because you’d find things like people saying Susan Sontag is “a very bright girl.”

I think there were exceptions, like I do think Hannah Arendt really was actually pretty confident in her opinion, and Nora Ephron was too in many ways, but for other people it took time and practice and also it kind of — [it was] much more difficult to maintain off [the page].

I don’t know that I have an answer about how they managed that confidence. Basically the book is about the process of learning to claim your authority, and how it happens. The truth is that there are setbacks in it. I feel like these are things that are useful for us to know — that it’s not just a one-way street of you’re either born confident or you’re not.


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You said that it took you awhile to realize that you could make a living as a writer, and you addressed some realistic aspects of working as a writer in the book. You mentioned various women’s financial situations and the income that would come in (or not). You also mentioned their romantic relationships or friendships and marriage.

It’s a side issue that’s sort of an interest to me. It’s interesting because you often have the conversation with contemporary writers where they believe that in the past, people made a great living as a writer, or a possible middle-class living. I’m not sure that it was ever true. It was sort of true with the New Yorker for awhile, under William Shawn, but that was only if you opted into the drawing system, and only if you were on staff. Otherwise, everybody was always in this position of uncertainty.

Nearly everybody in the book at some point is like, “I can’t make money off of magazines. I’ve got to go do something else. I’ve got to get a teaching job. I’ve got to get married. I have to go to Hollywood.” It was mostly just to point out the parallels. There’s a parallel between Ephron and Parker in that sense. There’s a parallel [between] Didion and Parker too in that sense of — eventually just deciding I can’t make enough money in magazines no matter how brilliant people think I am.

Almost all of these women had [something] to overcome in their background in terms of the expectation to make a life as an artist or as a writer. Not one of them really inherited the status. I guess Ephron sort of did, but it was different. It’s just complicated. I don’t have a grand theory of how it’s all going to work, or how it’s all worked, but [on the other hand] it is true that Parker in the 1920s was getting paid certain fees that would be recognizable to us today, which is scary. [laughs] I mean what do you do?

You also note where these women were publishing their work and how that affected what they were able to say. I thought about a piece that you had written at Gawker many years ago about Bustle when it first was coming up.

Oh my gosh I don’t even remember this piece but go ahead and tell me about it.

You had written about how [Bustle] was driven by profit and traffic with the idea that women could be writing there, but that this whole model could actually be stripping women of an ability to have a voice. You’ve also talked in that piece about the importance of editors. I was wondering how you think a woman today might make career choices based on having or developing a voice and an opinion.

One of the interesting things that happened early in my career is I started working as an assistant to this New Yorker writer named D. T. Max, and hopefully he won’t kill me for revealing this secret. He said to me very early on when I was working for him, “You have to remember your clients are actually editors, not the public.” The idea is to find an editor who gets you and who wants to let you do what you can do best. I hadn’t thought about it in that way before because a writing career is sold to you as becoming famous, or knowing all these people. I didn’t really think about editors necessarily as clients, or even as people who had influence.

It is actually really tough for young women coming up now. I really made my career working for The Awl in its sort of heyday. I wrote for Choire [Sicha], and then I started writing for Carrie Frye. In both those cases, those were editors who happened to think that I had something to say and who wanted me to be able to say it. That was a really valuable venue, and actually a lot of the well-paying journals and work that I eventually got came from people finding me at The Awl. It changed my life. I think it’s harder to find those venues now. People who want to support writing in America, or what have you, need to think about how we nurture those platforms.

Contemporary writers… believe that in the past, people made a great living as a writer, or a possible middle-class living. I’m not sure that it was ever true.

I realize that everything now is a mess because the internet is a mess and the country is a mess, and we’re all feeling powerless and hopeless in a variety of ways, but it’s been disturbing to watch that kind of platform disappear. My whole experience at The Awl is inflecting the way that I’m telling the story in this book and elsewhere about the effect of editors on careers.

The trouble for a young woman who wants to have a voice today is first of all, the media is too Twitter-obsessed, so everything is, “can you tweet well?” as opposed to “can you write well?” which are actually somewhat different skills. Sort of like, “are you good at writing poetry or are you good at writing prose?” It’s not that either skill is necessarily more important than the other; actually we need both. They’re not always the same skill.

In the media right now I think there’s some difficulty in figuring out which is which. The thing that I learned from the book too is [which editors were which for these writers] — everybody from [Vanity Fair editor] Robert Benchley egging Dorothy Parker on, and [Vanity Fair editor] Frank Crowninshield hiring her in the first place, right on down to somebody like [New Yorker editor] William Shawn looking at Janet Malcolm writing about children’s books in his magazine [but] being like, “There’s more here. I could let you do more.” She eventually did photography criticism and then eventually moved into fact pieces, and the New York Times tried to hire her. Those people matter. I really don’t know what it means for — such a pretentious phrase, but — American letters. The editor is going by the wayside. It’s not good news for anybody. I also don’t think it’s necessarily good news for women.

It’s kind of interesting, the loss of that traditional relationship. I think I read a piece many years ago by Adrian Chen about Gawker that was kind of like, the internet has [diminished] the role of the editor because now you just click publish. It depends on where you are, because I’ve worked at newspapers where you had many different layers of editing. I’ve had editors who wanted to help me hone a voice and others who really just didn’t care.

There are some writers you can just click “publish” on, and Gawker, for better or for worse, was one of those places where they had a knack for picking them out. I don’t think I was one of them, to be honest with you. It’s tricky, and it is a relationship that is defined by the particular powers of the writer in question. Even the politics essays I’m talking about by Didion that I love — I mean, by all accounts those were Bob Silvers’ idea or [Barbara Epstein’s] idea [editors at the New York Review of Books]. That was an editor being like, “Didion doesn’t exactly really need my help, but I’d really be curious to read her on the subject.”

I think those [types of] editors are still around. David Haglund, who edits for the New Yorker online, is a really great editor and one of my favorites. These people exist. It’s tricky to find them, but it’s probably always been tricky to find them.

Many of the women in Sharp had reputations that changed among the younger generation while they were still alive. You’ve written about this. What is it about our culture — and maybe there is something that you have in mind beyond the fact that we’re raised to dislike other women — that drives a wedge between different generations of women and whatever form of feminism they’re occupying?

Well I think there’s obviously a number of things. I think it’s just, disappointment is a hell of a drug — and it feels like the world is often very disappointing or has been for young women. Hopefully it’s not going to stay this way. This is one of the ways that we deal with it, to turn it on each other. In that sense, I’ve had my moments. I don’t want to come across as a complete apologist for any flaws that anybody has. I’ve had my own disagreements.

Generally speaking, I don’t think anybody is socialized to have healthy conflict. It seems to take a lot of therapy to get there. I won’t even claim to always get there myself, or even most of the time get there myself. Because of that, it’s trickier in feminism because the premise is we have a claim on each other, we have some reason to demand fealty in some way. It’s tricky because my line on feminist solidarity has always been, I think it should be work, it’s a lifelong project.

It’s more of an ongoing project than it is a status that we’re going to achieve. I think that’s behind a lot of it, is that people make a category mistake about solidarity. They presume that there’s going to be some eventual point where women are just going to be loyal to each other and okay with each other and never have problems with the arguments or with the techniques or anything that anybody else is using on behalf of so-called women. I don’t think it’s ever going to get there.

Mostly they were expected to betray people, so keep that in mind — that there was some currency available to them socially to be like, “Well I’m not like those other vulgar women.”

That’s never going to change. It’s kind of the way people talk about marriage sometimes. It’s not like you get married and everything is fine. The same thing could kind of apply to feminist solidarity, in that it’s just going to have to be a project that we keep working on. Because people don’t look at it that way every time that somebody says something that everybody disagrees with.

The sense that we are betraying each other by disagreeing with each other is an idea that we need to dispense with. It’s not necessarily a betrayal, but it might be something that we need to argue about for a long time. If we can just diffuse it slightly, like to go from betrayal to disagreement, to me it feels like that would be a long way towards making a lot of these discussions healthier.

For sure. Many of the women in the book betrayed their peers, or took aim at their peers or friends.

Or feminists, yeah.

Or even people who gave them opportunities. In some ways I thought that their ruthlessness was actually kind of refreshing to read.

Yeah I mean, it is refreshing in the sense that the demands on them were different. Mostly they were expected to betray people, so keep that in mind — that there was some currency available to them socially to be like, “Well I’m not like those other vulgar women.” I don’t really get into this in the book, mostly because neither [Elizabeth] Hardwick nor Adrienne Rich are in it, but one gets the impression if you look a lot at the history of that friendship, [that] Rich seemed to be [a] New York intellectual because she was one of theirs, and she subsequently became a radical feminist and just horrified them, in a way that hasn’t really been talked about enough. But they were horrified by it.

Within intellectualism, cultural criticism, journalism, the fields that they were in, there was a currency to being like, “I’m not like those other vulgar women.” You can see it in the way that Hardwick had a really interesting relationship with feminism in that she both thought it was really interesting and seemed to have trouble committing to it politically because she believed it was vulgar. That’s in Sharp a little bit, where she discourages Pauline Kael — and my little theory [is] that [had] something to do with Kael later being known to diss about feminism frequently, even though in her early work she was actually pretty stridently feminist.

It’s interesting. She didn’t want to be considered vulgar either. The betrayal is socially inflected. Sometimes it’s portrayed as this intellectually brave thing to trash feminists, but it was complicated. It was both intellectually — it could both be intellectually brave and something that they were actually doing [to] curry social favor from other people. It’s tricky.

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* “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

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Natalie Daher is a writer and journalist based in New York who’s appeared on Racked, The Daily Beast, Lapham’s Quarterly and City Lab. She co-authors a newsletter, Clipped, about women’s magazines.

Editor: Dana Snitzky