Donated Book – Now available at Samuels Public Library

Front Royal Women's Resource Center and Royal Oak Bookshop co-sponsor donations to Samuels Public Library that are by or about women. Nan Hathaway, Book Donation Sponsor & Coordinator, chooses our books each year. Thank you Nan!

We highlight one of these books every third week each month. Our 2019 Book Reviews and Commentaries are provided by JoEllen McNeal. Thank you JoEllen!

Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion

By Michelle Dean

Named by NPR and a New York TimesEditors’ Choice as Best Book of the Year, Sharp is the story of ten women writers who have all been called “sharp” over the course of their careers.  Mixing biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Dean 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 20thcentury only makes them more remarkable,” Dean writes.  “They came up in a world that was not eager to hear women’s opinions about anything”

These ten women are united by what Dean calls “sharpness,” the ability to cut to the quick with precision of thought and wit.  Sharp is a vibrant depiction of the intellectual climate of twentieth-century New York, where gossip-filled parties at night gave out to literary slugging-matches in the pages of Partisan Review or the New York Review of Books.  It is also a passionate portrayal of how these women asserted themselves in a climate where women were treated with extreme condescension by the male-dominated cultural establishment.

Although the book focuses on strong, opinionated women, Sharp is not about women who were loud-and-proud feminists in the way we seem to like public women to be now. Arendt was steadfastly against feminism until her dying day.  Parker, West, Sontag, Kael, Ephron, and Malcolm were all more comfortable with the label, though they wavered.  Throughout the book, however, Dean points out that there is room, in this deep ambivalence about feminism, to take away a feminist message. Dean writes, “It is not only commonality that defines us. If we have learned anything…it is that the experience we call ‘being a woman’ is   inflected by race, class, and other sociological markers.  It is also inflected by personality…You can only speak in the voice you have been given. And that voice has a tenor and inflection given to you by all the experience you have. Some of that experience will inevitably be about being a woman.”

Sharp is also a testament to how important intelligent argument is in this day of social media and rampant opinions.  Dean writes that what she would like readers to take away from the book is the sense that argument can actually be joyful.  Argument can actually give us energy instead of shutting us down.  Instead of reading a piece of criticism for what you agree or disagree with, instead look for how intelligent the argument is and if it opens up the subject at hand. Sharpis an important book for our current times and a highly recommended read.


Michelle Dean is a journalist, critic, screenwriter, and the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2016 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.  A contributing editor at the New Republic, she has written for the New Yorker, Nation, New York Times Magazine, Slate, New York Magazine, Elle, Harper’s Magazine, and BuzzFeed.  She is also the co-creator of Hulu’s The Act. She lives in Los Angeles.

2019 August Book Commentary