Tuesday, April 22, 2008

SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE, by Nora Ephron


I found this book on the street, with a pile of other books that must have been sitting in someone's house since before I was born. The edges of the pages have turned brown with age, and the browning-effect is so strong on the inside of the front cover that it almost looks as if the book was smoked over a fire. Reading it was like looking through a window into the 70s, which made the book both interesting and boring at the same time.

SCRIBBLE SCRIBBLE collects the columns Ephron wrote for Esquire from 1975 to 1977. Her subject was the media, especially print journalism, and it's interesting to have an insider's account from those years, when the newness of New Journalism was starting to wear off. New Journalism, which started in the 60s and mostly died out by the end of the 70s, was characterized by the use of several fiction techniques (such as: including dialog instead of summarizing conversations to simple quotes; and writing from the first person, so the journalist becomes a character in the article) in the realm of nonfiction. The column that ends the book, which was also the last column she wrote during that stint at Esquire, describes Ephron's growing boredom with that style of journalism. This boredom is apparent in several of the columns leading up to her last entry, which makes the last third of the book a drag. But the two thirds of the book preceding it have some entertaining moments. Ephron can be very clever when she wants to be.

One of the interesting things about this book is how true it is to the tone of Esquire today. In the 30 years since this book came out Esquire has drifted a little toward the shallow titillation and crass commercialism so ubiquitous in today's magazines, but not as much as you might expect. Ephron's witty wordiness, her gentle sarcasm, and her ability to point out the illogical and incompetent might have a little less edge than the writing you see in current Esquire, but she's not far off.

A great example of how cutting she can be comes in her column on Brendan Gill, a writer for the New Yorker. She excoriates him thoroughly, makes him look like a dandy nincompoop. She also has a hard hand for Dorothy Schiff, past owner of the New York Post, and a whole host of other characters. In fact, it's much more likely to read Ephron trashing a fellow writer, and doing it in an intellectual and clever way, than it is to see her celebrating someone (though she does a little of that too).

Another interesting thing about this book is how it describes the beginnings of certain phenomena that have come to dominate journalism of today. A great example of this is Ephron's column describing the birth of People magazine, a magazine that became the vanguard for the only real money-making magazines still around: Celebrity Gossip rags. Nora saw the future clearly on that one, which is too bad for all of us around today.

1 comment:

Carson Lee said...

"celebrity gossip rags" -- you said it! Tina Brown also discusses that trend in "journalism" in her book The Diana Chronicles.
Nice review of Scribble -- I want to read it but it's too expensive -- over $100 for old copies because is out of print. I did order "Wallflower At The Orgy" from Amazon, though.
I like your site; will continue to check it -- have put on my List.
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