Archive for December, 2012

Nora Ephron: An Appreciation

Nora EphronWhen Nora Ephron died a few months ago, I knew I had to write something about her. I just wasn’t ready to do it right then. It took me a little while to understand just what I wanted to say about her and why. I’m not sure I know the what and why yet, but I’m ready to talk about it now, particularly now that the end of the year tributes have begun to come in.

I’ve read every book Ephron ever wrote. I haven’t seen all of her movies, but I’ve seen several of them and one—Julie and Julia—ranks as one of my all-time favorites.

I sort of stumbled across Ephron, long before she was famous.  I saw her first book, Wallflower At the Orgy, at a bookstore many, many years ago and took it home just because it looked interesting. Wallflower At the Orgy consisted of interviews and articles she’d written for, among others, Cosmopolitan. They were lightweight pieces, the kind of thing young female writers used to do for mass market periodicals. But because it was Ephron, those lightweight articles frequently had a bite. I remember one about a makeover she’d gone through for Cosmo. If you read women’s magazines, you know the kind of article I mean—writer goes to famous hair stylist or makeup artist and is remade, complete with pictures. Ephron’s take was slightly self-mocking, but it followed the usual formula for the type, except that she’d added a postscript to the original article in which she filled in the details her Cosmo editor wouldn’t let her include, like the fact that her friends and family thought she looked weird after the makeover, and that she herself was far from pleased with the result. It was a welcome bit of vinegar in what’s usually a fairly saccharine type of article.

Ephron’s next book was the one that really brought her to national prominence: Crazy Salad. Ephron was a feminist, without qualification or demur (as am I—live with it). But she wasn’t one of those feminists who refuses to see any problems or absurdities in the movement. Some of Crazy Salad is undoubtedly a bit dated (consciousness-raising groups have been replaced by book clubs), but articles like “A Few Words About Breasts” are still as relevant as they were forty years ago.

Crazy Salad was followed by Scribble, Scribble, a similarly trenchant collection of essays about journalism and writers in general, collected from Ephron’s columns for Esquire and New York. Again, she offers a snapshot of a particular time (the late seventies), but also insights that apply just as well to the present.

Then came Heartburn. I’ve written elsewhere about the revenge aspects of that novel, but it was also vintage Ephron—simultaneously funny and sad. It was the only fiction she ever wrote, and soon thereafter she switched to writing screenplays, at which she was spectacularly successful (three Academy Awards nominations, among many other awards).

She came back to essay writing with her later collections I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing, both about age and aging and both wonderful.

So why do I love Nora Ephron, besides the fact that she was a wonderful writer and a daunting role model? Maybe because she always sounded like someone you’d love to meet in real life. The ideal best bud, the person you really wanted to have lunch with so that you could dish and let her tell you how to handle that incredibly irritating person in your office. It wasn’t just Ephron’s formidable wit that made her charming. Dorothy Parker was witty in the extreme, yet I never felt I wanted to get to know her in person—Parker came across as someone who’d skewer you neatly the minute you stepped away. In contrast, Ephron’s wit was leavened with humanity. You wanted to hear what she had to say, and you really wished she could tell you what she thought.

I still wish that. I’d love to know what her take would have been on the War On Women or the election. And it makes me so sad to know we’ll no longer have a chance to hear it.

Nora Ephron. Ave Atque Vale.

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I’m Nobody

Emily DickinsonI’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

Then there’s a pair of us—don’t tell!

They’d banish us, you know.

I’ll confess—this is actually a version of a blog post I published a while ago, but this week was Emily Dickinson’s birthday: She was born on December 10, 1830. I think about Dickinson now and then, particularly when I head off to one of those Big Conferences where I truly feel like the first line of this poem applies to me. But I also think about her whenever I consider the self-publishing phenomenon.

You see, although Dickinson wrote literally hundreds of poems, fewer than a dozen of them were actually published during her lifetime. Moreover, the ones that were published were usually altered substantially because editors figured most people would be turned off by her idiosyncratic style (to say nothing of her occasionally heretical religious beliefs).

Dickinson herself was sort of a textbook agoraphobe. She lived the latter part of her life without venturing far beyond her own room in the family home in Amherst, MA. After her death, her brother’s Significant Other, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a critic who had corresponded with Dickinson, published the first edition of some of her poetry after carefully editing (i.e., censoring) her more unusual thoughts and her literary style. The real depth and daring of her poetry wasn’t revealed until Thomas H. Johnson returned to Dickinson’s original versions and published a complete edition in 1955.

So what does this have to do with self-publishing? Well, just for a moment, consider what might have happened if Dickinson had had access to the Internet. She wouldn’t have had to send her stuff to the unsympathetic Higginson for critique (he referred to her as “my cracked poet” when he discussed her with his friends). Today, she might find a congenial on-line class where she could try out her slant rhymes with less conservative readers. Or, more importantly, she herself could put together a small collection of her poems, unedited, and put them up on Smashwords and Amazon for ninety-nine cents.

I’d like to think that she’d have been treated much more kindly if she could have presented her own poetry to a wider audience in the way she wanted it to be seen.

And yet, it’s quite possible that Dickinson knew only too well how her own poetry would be received, even if she’d been able to get it out there where it could be read. It’s quite possible that Higginson and Todd represented the way most readers would have reacted to something so unconventional. Even if she’d been able to publish her poetry unaltered, there’s no guarantee it would have been read, or if read, understood and appreciated.

So maybe Dickinson knew what she was doing. Maybe she was one of those rare writers for whom writing itself was the reward. And maybe even now she wouldn’t want to present her poetry to the outside world for other people to see and maybe misunderstand. Unlike a lot of us who agonize over readers and critics and editors and agents, maybe Emily figured the hell with it and wrote strictly for herself. After all, that poem that I quoted at the beginning of this post has a second stanza too.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

I think I’ll keep those lines stored away in the back of my mind. They’ll come in very handy after the next rejection.

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burn noticeSo you all know this phrase, “jumping the shark,” right? If by some chance you don’t, it refers to a particularly egregious episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie enters a competition that involves jumping his motorcycle over a shark tank. The phrase itself, however, has come to refer to an episode of a TV series that marks the beginning of the end, the moment when the series begins its long descent into cancellation or irrelevance.

Usually when a series jumps the shark it’s because the writing declines or the actors get sick of their roles or the show as a whole goes to pot. But I’ve decided it’s also possible for a series to jump the shark simply because it’s run its course. And in that case, it’s time for the series to go, even if the writing, acting, and production values are still right up there.

This thought occurred to me while watching season five of Burn Notice. Now Burn Notice used to be one of my favorite shows. I loved Jeffrey Donovan’s multiply talented Michael Weston. Gabrielle Anwar’s Fiona was the perfect combination of strength and vulnerability. And Bruce Campbell was, well, Bruce Campbell. But the basic premise of the show, Michael trying to find out who framed him and trying to be reinstated as a spy, could only go on for so long. Even the introduction of a new player, Cody Bell’s Jesse Porter, couldn’t keep the idea going past a certain point. And by season 5, I was feeling restless. Yeah, yeah, sinister forces out to stop Michael, criminal mastermind, blah, blah, blah. Anything else on?

I’m afraid the same thing is happening with another of my favorite series, Leverage. As with Burn Notice, I love the cast. But the premise, Nate Ford’s band of merry confidence tricksters, is beginning to seem tired. There are only so many ways to introduce conflict among the players and most of them have already been tried more than once. I’d say it’s time to find a graceful way to end the crew’s adventures.

The sad thing about these shows is that they haven’t descended into mediocrity—they’re still doing good work. It’s just that the premise the shows are based upon is wearing out. Time to suck it up and quit while you’re ahead.

I’ve seen terrific shows stay on a little longer than they should have, and the results aren’t pretty. I loved The Wire, for example, but that final season was so much weaker than the others that I almost wished they’d just skipped it. I stopped watching The Sopranos a couple of seasons before it ended because I was tired of Tony and no longer interested in the evils the family indulged in. In both cases, the series had reached a peak in the fourth season—the wonderful, heartbreaking examination of the school system in The Wire, the jolting plot with Ralphie in The Sopranos—which they never really equaled. If the shows had ended then, most of us would have grieved, but we might also remember them fondly as shows that went out on a definite high.

I guess the point is that all shows wear out eventually. Right now I’m waiting breathlessly for the next season of Justified, but I’m sure there will come a time when I’m no longer as entranced by Rylan’s adventures as I am now. The tough part for the show’s producers is figuring out when they need to put their creation out of its misery (the fact that that creation is the source of their livelihood must make this decision even more difficult). Still, tough though that decision may be, it needs to be made. I’d say it’s time for Michael Weston to stride off into the sunset, preferably with Fiona on his arm.

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