Reading Other People’s Mail: Talking with Michelle Dean
Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, Michelle Dean’s debut book, forthcoming in April from Grove Press, is a sort of fantasy: it’s a chronicle of literary history, from the early 1900s to the latter years of the century, that more or less precludes men.
The Y chromosomes are certainly scattered throughout Sharp—it’s not as if one can avoid them entirely—but Dorothy Parker, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, and others are the stars of the show.
There’s no one way to create history; the stories we tell are dependent on where we choose to train our sights. So, in era in which men still hold the most sway over public opinion, whether it be on television or newspaper opinion pages, being immersed in the world of Sharp—Parker at Vanity Fair, Arendt at Partisan Review, Ephron at Esquire—is refreshing.
Not long ago, she and I talked about the pleasures of research, the early work of literary legends, and the absence of Black writers from the narrative.
The Rumpus: In Sharp’s Notes On Sources, you mention that Renata Adler attended a presentation you gave in 2015. That must’ve been nerve-wracking!
Michelle Dean: Adler had not been responding to my queries. But then I got invited to give a talk to the New York Institute for the Humanities, which is a bunch of people, mostly arts writers of one stripe or another, who have lunches where they discuss either recent or forthcoming research projects. And you give a presentation. I heard, not too long after I’d been booked to do this, that Adler had RSVP’d.
I was kind of thrilled. Well, I guess I’ll get to meet her. She was one of the first people there, and I think she rather liked the presentation. It was focused on the first half of the book because that’s where I was with the work, at that time. But towards the end, people started asking her questions about the book’s subject matter.
Rumpus: Did you get a sense of why Adler didn’t want to talk to you?
Dean: I think it’s tough to be written about. I can only speculate, really.
It’s tricky, because the book lives somewhere between criticism and journalism and biography. And people weren’t sure how much I wanted to know about their personal lives.
Rumpus: Ultimately, there is a fair amount in Sharp about their personal lives.
Dean: In part, that’s just glue to stitch the whole thing together. Although the book is sometimes described as a series of profiles, the structure of the book is actually chronological. One progresses through various parts of their lives. But there is some personal stuff in there, because I don’t think that writers write in isolation from their personal lives. I know there’s a vogue for novelists to complain that they’re asked if their novels are autobiography. And I’m not trying to be that person that thinks there’s this one-to-one correlation, but I think obviously your experience of being a writer is, among other things, an interpersonal experience that you have with other people that you end up either explicitly, or indirectly, writing about.
I think this most relates to Mary McCarthy and Rebecca West. Their romances are very much tangled up with their achievements as writers.
Rumpus: You do an excellent job of laying out the relationships these writers had with each other. They had real connections, and they’d wend into and out of each other’s lives in large and small ways. For example, Janet Winn, before she’d become Janet Malcolm, writing for The New Republic about a Dorothy Parker TV appearance.
Dean: It’s true, though Janet is the one person who would say she was held quite apart from everyone, except for Nora.
They were connected and they were forced, more or less, to reckon with each other, whether they liked it or not. And they were all identified, at one point or another, as somehow exceptional. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, which I think is a point I was trying to make.
Rumpus: These women kept having to shoehorn themselves into less-than-natural spaces in order to have a career. Parker writing about theater for Vanity Fair, for instance.
Dean: All of them did it. I like Sontag’s puff pieces for Vogue, where it was obvious that she did it for money, so I’m not criticizing in the least. But yeah, you sort of had to. One of my interests is how much they wrote for money, which is something we don’t typically talk about, especially in literary biography. There tends to be this idea that every piece and every assignment and every gig is always something speaking from the soul. We think that about great writers, that they’re incapable of doing hackwork. But having marinated in literary biographies for several years now, I literally can’t think of anybody who didn’t do some hackwork. I mean in the ‘70s, Adrienne Rich helped a professor write a book on schlock horror movies.
Everyone does work for money, even if it didn’t look like it on the page.
Rumpus: What was the most surprising thing you found out about one of your subjects?
Dean: I wasn’t really writing the kind of biography, or any kind of biography, where I’d be surprised. I mean, there’s whole swaths of their work I don’t talk about.
Rumpus: But you did a lot of research.
Dean: I did do a ton of research. I have an enormous file on my computer of all the archival stuff and all the press clippings. It’s huge. I think the most surprising stuff I found was Janet Malcolm’s early work, which I don’t think I knew existed. Or I’m pretty sure most people didn’t know it existed before this. Most people think of Janet as just starting at the New Yorker, and don’t realize that she had this whole body of work at The New Republic.
Rumpus: How did you find it?
Dean: I was looking at that article about Parker being on TV with Mailer one day. I had looked at it before, but at some point in the process I realized the byline was “Janet Winn.” And I thought, Oh, that’s funny, that would have been Janet’s maiden name. There was a whole drama about getting access to The New Republic database. I didn’t have access to it, and then I did. Eventually I pulled up Janet Winn’s work and there, in the middle of it, was Janet Winn Malcolm. And I was like, Oh, it is the same person.
I’m not sure why she doesn’t talk about it. You ask her about how she begins her career and she always starts with Mr. Shawn saying, Hey, why don’t you write this thing about children’s books?
Rumpus: It’s a better story.
Dean: It is a better story. But I love when Norman Mailer writes in to the letters pages to flirt with her. Like, he just cannot stay out of this book. Typical.
I was definitely more interested in the beginnings of careers than the ends, mostly because the beginning is the point at which you cut into the conversation. And that takes some particular skill or particular wit, and I was interested in how one came to possess that.
Rumpus: In the preface, you note that these writers were largely from similar backgrounds—white, Jewish, middle class. Hurston notwithstanding, to what extent did Black writers and editors factor into these women’s lives?
Dean: They didn’t, and that was the problem. When Hannah Arendt came out against school desegregation, she had these dialogues with [James] Baldwin and [Ralph] Ellison. The nature of the dialogues suggests, to me, that there were no Black people in her immediate circle. She was solicitous towards them, and somewhat humble in a way she wasn’t towards Jewish writers who criticized “Eichmann.” Eventually, she seemed to recognize that there was a gap in her experience that was worth exploring or talking about.
But yeah, to a large extent, Black writers were not in the circles these women traveled in. It’s a question and a problem that troubled me as I put together the book, because I think about issues of diversity a lot, and about how you articulate the past. But what I couldn’t do was make this into a history that was properly multicultural. I mean, the presence of Zora Neale Hurston in the book is brief, and the reason that she is there is to make sure the reader knew that this exclusion was going on, that they didn’t get caught up totally in the natural triumphal narrative of the book. I want them to understood that I was describing something that was limited, a club that was not available for everyone to join.
I think there’s a whole other book to be written about the history of Black women writers and critics. It would have been a disservice to them to simply put them into this tradition, as though the world would receive, read, and react to Black women writers in the same way as they received these white women writers.
Rumpus: I’m embarrassed that, last year, when you mentioned Rebecca West as a great influence, I had not heard of her. Would you mind telling readers why she’s so important?
Dean: West, almost as much as Parker, was important for the women of the mid-century. She was this feminist writer who did actually write in a fairly explicit feminist vein, who managed to break through. And there are lots of reasons why that was, and why she was able to command such an audience. Partially—and people don’t like talking about men in the lives of these women—it was because H.G. Wells really promoted her work as part of their affair. When The New Republic launched, it had a piece from West called “The Duty of Harsh Criticism.” And there was an ad that called her “the woman H.G. Wells calls ‘the best man in England.’”
Because of that, she was a very visible public figure. She is sort of remembered now. By and large, she’s famous for writing something called Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a huge book about Yugoslavia. It’s a thousand-page book, you know? West was very loquacious. “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” comes up often enough, often wielded by people who are on the side of Criticism should be screaming all the time at the mediocrities of life, which I guess is one way to do it.
She’s also known for her remark, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me, from the doormat or a prostitute.” I love her because she was sort of crazy.
She pops up in Virginia Woolf’s diaries all the time. One thing I expect to be asked, and you haven’t asked it, is where’s Virginia Woolf in this book? The truth is that Woolf was not the kind of public phenomenon in her own time that these women were. Which is not to say that she wasn’t writing some of the most brilliant criticism of the time and that people weren’t aware of her. But because Woolf’s reputation was so heavily resurrected by feminist scholars in the 1970s, we tend to have an outsized view of her [contemporaneous] reputation.
Rumpus: As you researched, did you have a favorite source of information?
Dean: Archives, obviously. People underestimate the romance of reading other people’s letters. I mean, that’s a line I’m stealing from Janet in The Silent Woman. But reading other people’s mail is actually really fun, much as it can also be kind of prurient. There is a romance to it, right? There’s a romance to opening a book that hasn’t been opened in twenty years, but you’re curious about the marginalia somebody wrote. I think I only have one mention of marginalia in the book, and it’s probably Sontag’s marginalia in an Arendt book because she thought it was really funny, which I think is hilarious.
Rumpus: There are a lot of wonderful, often funny biographical asides in Sharp. I particularly love the one about William Shawn promising Pauline Kael that, if only she’d come work for him, he would keep his fingers off her copy. And then he immediately reneges on his promise.
Dean: You get a sense of their personality. That’s why their personal lives come into it, too. It’s a personality thing, more for critics than for fiction writers. It’s becomes more of a performative art, a construction of yourself in a more direct way than it would if you’re writing fiction that you want people to believe is not connected to you.
Rumpus: Did the process of the research and the writing radically change the way you felt about any of your subjects?
Dean: I feel like I know them, which is dumb, in a way that I didn’t know them before. But it certainly made me think about them differently.
Certain things about the way in which their careers developed were revelations to me, in that I had a picture of them coming more or less fully formed to the table. Which was always a very pernicious supposition that I had about writers, and probably why I personally started writing relatively late in life. I just sort of assume that if I didn’t already feel like I had, like, Alice Munro capabilities or Dorothy Parker capabilities, I shouldn’t be writing anything at all. And there is something sort of empowering, dare I say it, to read this early stuff and realize it hadn’t been that way for these women, at all. I think that’s true for literally every one of them. And it changed how I felt about them because of that. That said, Didion and Adler are the closest things to immediate geniuses.
Rumpus: Who had to work the hardest?
Dean: Probably Parker and West. They were churning out copy at a rate that web writers now claim has never been churned out. They weren’t writing eight blog posts a day, but they were writing, say, three times a week. Parker less so than the West, actually. West seems to have been more productive, generally, or more able to settle down to work. Parker had trouble with that sometimes, especially after she more or less gave up on it.
Rumpus: Janet Malcolm looked over her section of the book and offered some corrections. Did you have any mixed feelings about that?
Dean: Who wouldn’t?
Rumpus: What convinced you to do it?
Dean: I wanted it to be accurate. And I wasn’t writing a biography where I was inquiring into their personal lives.
The book was supposed to be about their work, about documented evidence. I wanted to work with paper. If I had tried to report this, I would have died. It’s ten lives, and negotiating full access to ten lives would have been impossible. It’s hard enough for a biographer, typically, to get full access to even one.
The error terrors are real, anyway. I still have it about the book, frankly, all the time, because it’s such a fact-intensive book, which I didn’t even realize I was signing up for.
Author photograph © John Midgely.