Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace are two of the most common points of comparison for contemporary essayists who blur the line between cultural criticism and their own personal experience. Whether their books border on memoir or their essays set out with the intent to dissect an experience, event, or work of art from a personal point of view, we frequently judge new voices by these two giants of the modern essay.
That’s perfectly fine, of course. It’s totally reasonable to freak out over how good the essays in Consider the Lobster or Slouching Towards Bethlehem are, but for my money, the writer who has had just as much — maybe more — influence on the style and tone of many of today’s writers is Nora Ephron. And while her films are rightfully celebrated, she doesn’t get nearly as much attention as she deserves for her writing these days.
Reading through Ephron’s collection of articles from the late 1960s, Wallflower at the Orgy, you get the sense that there was hardly a topic an editor could assign her that she wouldn’t write something great about. Even more importantly, her style, tone, and humor are all just as noticeable in the work of contemporary writers as the signatures of Wallace’s and Didion’s writing.
Take, for example, Ephron on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead: “Like most of my contemporaries, I first read The Fountainhead when I was 18 years old. I loved it. I too missed the point.” Teenage Ephron turns into college Ephron, who goes to Wellesley and learns that it actually isn’t a book about “a strong-willed architect — Frank Lloyd Wright, my friends told me — and his love life.” She sits in on a freshman-orientation seminar, and more facts about the book are uncovered, namely, “That the author was opposed to the welfare state.” What comes next isn’t a leftie screed against Rand’s work or ideas, or a Tea Party Patriot puff piece; instead, Ephron delivers an account of The Fountainhead‘s rise to fame, and long life as a book that was introduced to “a new generation of readers every five years.” A rarity then, and a rarity now.
It’s one of the most interesting and balanced essays you’ll read on Rand, but what makes it a classic is how Ephron ends the piece. In describing followers of the writer who “smoke cigarettes with dollar signs on them,” and the gold dollar-sign brooch Rand was said to wear, she finds a perfect endpoint:
One would have liked to ask Miss Rand about that brooch, but she does not give interviews to nonsympathizers. One would have liked to ask her a number of other questions: how she feels about The Fountainhead’s continuing success, how she reacts when she thinks of the people in publishing who said it would never sell, what she does when she opens her royalty checks. Presumably, Ayn Rand laughs.
Ephron nails it time after time in Wallflower at the Orgy. Reading it today is like scrolling through a 1969 version of The Awl. She’s self-deprecating when she needs to be, biting at other times, and open about herself in a way that a lot of journalists then and now were afraid or incapable of being. Whether you’re reading her piece on the fashion designer Bill Blass or “the closest thing to fiction” she claims to have ever written, “The Diary of a Beach Wife,” you can see how Ephron progressed from her job as a journalist to Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally — but also that she was as comfortable writing about random corners of the cultural world as a James Wolcott, with the wit of a Fran Lebowitz.
It may be somewhat unusual to discover a writer through watching her films, but those films probably provided a gateway for many contemporary writers to find her books. And it’s why Ephron’s voice is just as palpable in the work of today’s essayists and critics as any other master of the form.