"Wallflower at the Orgy": Nora Ephron on the '60s

Ephron's work as a young reporter is a model for writers, and a window into a time of American chaos

Published August 29, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

When Nora Ephron died last year, at age 71, she left behind a wealth of  material, most famously the 14 feature films she wrote or directed, including “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Her career as an essayist preceded her Hollywood career, and although many of her collections of essays were widely read and received warmly by critics, they have in some ways been overshadowed by the powerful and lingering cultural traction of her films.

The digital audiobook release of Ephron’s first book, “Wallflower at the Orgy,” is an opportunity to see her wit, her skill as a reporter, and most of all the fierce intelligence that made her work so pleasurable for readers.

“Wallflower” is culled from magazine pieces written just after Ephron’s departure from her first serious media job, as a reporter at the New York Post. In some ways, it is a transitional volume, because in these pieces the reader can see a young reporter carefully shedding the fiction of objectivity to which newspaper reporters have always pretended, and settling with increasing confidence into the first-person position that allowed Ephron’s voice and slantwise insight to reposition whatever it was she had taken as her subject.

The first paragraph of the introduction to “Wallflower” offers a characteristic display of the Ephron sensibility:

Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade—only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me. The image made no impression at all on my husband. But it has stayed with me—albeit in another context. Because working as a journalist is exactly like being the wallflower at the orgy. I always seem to find myself at a perfectly wonderful event where everyone else is having a marvelous time, laughing merrily, eating, drinking, having sex in the back room, and I am standing on the side taking notes on it all.

There is self-deprecation in the metaphor, sure, but also a corresponding intensity of observation, and most of all the outsize longing a young person — and not only a reporter — might feel in the presence of the great action of the world.  And yet, that position of outsider — the position most common to the people who make the stories and books and films that cause us most strongly to feel, or, as Conrad said, to see — is what allowed Ephron to write so beautifully and so unsparingly, with the insight that can arrive when you are the only person in the room who doesn’t have a dog in the fight.

The individual pieces in “Wallflower” are dispatches from the brief period in American history — the late '60s — in which one culture was being displaced by another, a seismic development akin to the collision and overlap of tectonic plates. It was no small thing that Ephron was a woman in the reporter’s role, and it seems to the reader or listener, now, that she made great use of the way she was underestimated for her gender. As a result, she got as close to the action as any of her contemporaries, and the news she brought was truly news — not the facts we already knew, but a reckoning, and almost always a good-humored one, with the harder question of who and what made the things that passed for facts, and what it meant about them and about us.

The golden age of long-form magazine reporting and essaying may now be 40 or more years behind us, but the Internet and digital delivery platforms are making it possible, once again, for the form to reach a broad readership. For writers looking for models, “Wallflower at the Orgy” isn’t a bad place to begin.

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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