Hear Nora Ephron Talk About Women Writers

In December 1972 at the 92nd Street Y in New York, Nora Ephron took part in a discussion called "Women Writers: Has Anything Changed?" (ha, still not nearly enough to stop having panels in 2012 about whether anything's changed) with novelist Elizabeth Janeway and poet Carolyn Kizer, moderated by literary critic Helen Vendler. Ephron took it upon herself to analyze the New York Times' book reviews in 1972 and 1956 and found that the number of women's books reviewed was only one percent different. (And that the male editors and agents she asked for statistics didn't understand why she cared! I mean, what's the big deal, right?) Ephron told listeners that she felt the way women's books were discussed had changed slightly, but that they still had a long way to go:

"I think books that were once dismissed as women's novels or as soap opera — it's interesting that no man, however trashy a book he writes, is ever accused of writing soap opera — those women's novels, so called women's novels, were really condescended to 5, 10 years ago. I think what we've moved to now is a condescension. It's not as obvious as the old condescension...the condescension now is a better condescension, but it's still condescending.

She also said it frustrated her that the only books that were treated respectfully were about the women's liberation movement — and that books that had nothing to do with women's lib were being branded as if they did by critics and publishers, like Joan Didion's Play it as it Lays and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. "One of the sad things is that books that aren't like this tend to be overlooked," she said. "The kind of beautifully crafted novel — I hate to say women's novel, but a beautifully crafted novel about women that is not about young women tends to be overlooked." She suggested The Home by Penelope Mortimer and A Woman of Feeling by Violet Weingarten as examples of "beautifully crafted" books that didn't receive due recognition.

There's a lot more goodness in here, about unfair (and still relatable) gender stereotypes and Virginia Woolf and dickish reviewers, so if you're missing Nora Ephron and already watched When Harry Met Sally a few times, give it a listen.

[Recorded at 92nd Street Y, part of their Unterberg Poetry Center reading series. For more archival recordings, visit 92Y's Virtual Poetry Center.]