To begin: two women — two writers, two different centuries and countries.
Both make light of their societies. One was beloved, sought after and continues to enthrall people to this day in ways I fail to appreciate.
The other damages reputations with a whip and wit as sharp as the edge of a cliff. I seek her out.
I’m afraid I have no sense of mass appeal because the first writer is everyone’s sweetheart: Jane Austen.
The second one is Dorothy Parker. To me, her prose sizzles. She doesn’t waste words or effort explaining stories that are full of sentimental creatures mooning over unattainable men who end up being attainable, in set-up circumstances so similar from one story to another, that all you need to do is wash down the names and locations, white-out a few character differences, and you’ve got a new story with a slightly different flavour.
Like Austen. (Defies reason, almost. Because I admire Elizabeth Gaskell and her cronies.)
Clearly, I have no idea what makes Austen appealing. I’ve tried, believe me. Northanger Abbey was my first. It is clear to me why the publisher who bought it, refused to publish it for a long time. Wasn’t it posthumously published? I won’t bother to regale anyone with the plot–it is trite and wasteful, predictable and Austen plunges through its climax as if it were an afterthought (I think that’s her point, the triviality of it). I get it. It’s a bald chase mocking the frivolity of Austen’s world. I just don’t know how someone could write story after story of the same thing, dressed up in different gowns, among different friends, in different (or sometimes, the same) towns.
In most cases, prolific doesn’t equate quality. Out of the few prolific writers I’ve been able to sink my teeth into, Daphne DuMaurier stands out, Ruth Rendell, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and God help me, there are moments…Mary Stewart. I have an enduring affinity for Agatha Christie (aka Mary Westmacott), thanks to my grandmother. (I like how Christie referred to her method of writing as a “sausage factory”. Clearly, the woman humored herself, all the while owning her craft like few others.)
And Ursula Le Guin. A mighty writer that infiltrates my thoughts consistently with her “working metaphors”.
Always Coming Home
Another author I find delightful: Charles Dickens. Then I made the mistake of reading his biography. I need to stop this. The more I find out about how writers lived and what they really thought, how they worked, etc., the less their writing inspires me. The mere idea that Dickens’ character, Flora Finching in Little Dorrit (a novel I am rather fond of), was based on his real-life first love, bothered me. How dare a writer presume to be so arrogant as to use a person in such a way? And yet, he handles her with a pity that taps into sentimental care in a manner many writers don’t, so this added a lingering under-layer of insight to Dickens for me.
But I digress. Obviously.
Back to Dorothy Parker. A recent discovery. And a welcome one. She adds levity to her writing. Anyone who is quoted as saying when asked to use “horticulture” in a sentence, “You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think”, has my giggles and my admiration. Not that I am anyone notable enough from which to seek out admiration. But still, this is a writer who I needed, just about now. Short stories, poems that don’t take themselves too seriously, like “Bric-A-Brac”, and letters in which her brevity is charged with honest criticisms of her own work–she knows she doesn’t run with the F. Scott Fitzgeralds. But with her bold wit and clever honesty, she is refreshing. Light, talented, and poignant.
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