When I was in journalism school in the 1970s, we looked to Esquire magazine, not the New Yorker, as the pinnacle of long-form narrative non-fiction. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and other Successful White Male Writers were our gods.
The ’60s and ’70s were a time of Ms. magazine, supposed bra burnings, and Gloria Steinem. It was also when Nora Ephron became the first female columnist in Esquire. Ephron, a feminist, burst upon the national scene writing essays like “A Few Words About Breasts” in this magazine for men. She visited a feminine hygiene plant, explaining how testers sniffed to determine odor. Successful White Male Writers (and their White Male Editors) had never read anything like it.
As a feminist and journalist, I was hooked — not just because she could be outrageous, but because she wrote brilliantly on subjects no one had ever reported on before. I took this same approach in my first job out of school, as editor of the “women’s section” of a Canadian newspaper. Next to the brownie recipes and wedding announcements, I covered subjects new to the newspaper: homelessness, wife beating, venereal diseases and rape. My White Male Editor had never read anything like it. But he published all the stories, and never passed the resulting outraged phone calls on to me. I felt emboldened, but unlike Ephron, my sense of humor was lacking until I wrote this essay for Salon.com in the 1990s.
It was my first first-person essay, and writing it made me uncomfortable. Ephron would have approved. Like me, she had been a newspaper reporter beforehand, where the writer was never a part of a story. In her second collection of magazine articles, Wallflower at the Orgy, she describes her discomfort at transitioning to first person essays. It’s just as applicable today as it was in 1967:
“The work I have done is considerably more personal and considerably more full of the first-person singular pronoun, but I still believe that the best approach to its use ought to be discomfort. Do you really need it? Does it add something special to the piece? Is what you think interesting enough to make the reader care? Are you saying something that no one has said? Above all, do you understand that you are not as important as what you are covering?”
Ephron’s later work expanded to cover food, including a piece about food writers and her novel Heartburn, a story about a food writer at a newspaper who had a troubled marriage. When Ephron became a screenwriter, one of her most famous scenes (above) took place at Katz’s deli in New York. She also directed Julie & Julia, a food-centric love story. But it is her earlier writing that speaks to me the most, and I encourage you to read her books. You’ll find wit, entertainment and incomparable storytelling.
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You might also like:
- Nora Ephron’s Edge, by Corby Kummer, The Atlantic
- Nora Ephron Never Forgot the Food, the New York Times
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