Slouching Toward Neck Trouble
How Nora Ephron defined the comic spirit of new journalism.
Aspiring essayists tend to worship at the altar of Joan Didion. Her lyrical prose—with its rhythmic repetitions, its dramatic expressions of regret and longing caught in lockstep with the failings and farces of our culture—lures readers into a state of deeply romantic woe. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion writes in The White Album—a not-so-subtle suggestion to young writers that it isn’t merely important for them to spin their angst into dense, poetic passages; it’s necessary for their survival. In Didion’s hands, we are exquisitely aware of every tragic molecule that makes up our vast, bewildering universe.
Nora Ephron, very much by contrast, takes tragedy and bewilderment and spins them into rambling comedic reflections on mashed potatoes and infidelity and hating her purse. Maybe this is why Ephron and Didion are rarely acknowledged as contemporaries. But Ephron was just six and a half years younger than Didion, and both were self-assured female pioneers of New Journalism, even if Ephron had little interest in such a melodramatic accolade. (“I am not a new journalist,” she wrote, “whatever that is. I just sit here at the typewriter and bang away at the old forms.”)
Ephron, like Didion, got her start as a young writer in New York City, first as a reporter for the New York Post, then as a columnist for Esquire. Later, Ephron, like Didion, moved on to fiction, screenplays, and plays. Her impressive range of work is captured in The MOST of Nora Ephron (Knopf, $35), a weighty posthumous volume that includes not just Ephron’s journalism, magazine profiles,