I’ve spent a number of years now reviewing books, movies, shows, and plays, so every once in a while I’m asked by aspiring reviewers how to get started. Invariably, I send these nice young Christian kids off to read the works of a woman who, ideologically and behaviorally, couldn’t be more different from them, or from me.

Let me explain.

When I was a nice young Christian kid myself, I fell in love with the work of Dorothy Parker at first sight. All it took was opening a college literature textbook and seeing these words:

The Waltz

Why, thank you so much. I’d adore to.

I don’t want to dance with him. I don’t want to dance with anybody. And even if I did, it wouldn’t be him. He’d be well down among the last ten. I’ve seen the way he dances; it looks like something you do on Saint Walpurgis Night.

The stark honesty of that inner voice, the wry contrast between it and the outward voice, and the tone of the whole thing — a sort of grim buoyancy — were like nothing I’d ever read before. The narrator was every woman who’s ever smiled politely through a social ordeal while thinking unspeakable things, but this woman dared to speak them — if not to her hapless dance partner then at least to the millions of people who would read her work. The essay might have been several decades old, but to this reader, it felt revolutionary.

Dorothy Parker was far removed from my Christian comfort zone but her work helped me to find a voice of my own.

Eagerly I went on to explore more of Parker’s sharply witty stories, essays, and poems. But in recent years, I’ve opened my battered copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker (1976 edition, accept no substitutes) most often to the sections containing Parker’s reviews of books and plays. They are among the greatest reviews ever written, boldly weaving in the reviewer’s own personal thoughts and voice — just as essays like “The Waltz” did — and thus enhancing the power and piquancy of her opinions.

“Well, picture my surprise when this turned out to be a book review, after all! You could have knocked me over with a girder,” she quips after spending three paragraphs on her struggles with melancholic insomnia, and then goes on to give the book what is surely the most hilariously memorable review that a book about appendicitis has ever had. Other personal topics that show up in her reviews include romantic highs and lows, vacations, and hangovers. She coyly attributes her lack of enthusiasm for two popular novels to being “a person in that state where she is afraid to turn around suddenly lest she see again a Little Mean Man about eighteen inches tall, wearing a yellow slicker and roller skates.”

Dorothy Parker’s lifestyle is not the reason I make people study her work. She fully embraced the hedonism of the 1920s and, like so many other writers of the period, was a committed socialist. If her work didn’t come from an era so safely tucked away in the past, she might be one of those people that anxious Christian pundits warn you not to let your kids read in college. Maybe she still is.

I’m not downplaying those concerns — at least, not completely. A young person who’s about to be exposed to all sorts of different viewpoints is facing a serious challenge. It’s wise to ensure that he or she has a strong faith and the critical thinking skills to evaluate other ideologies, and I’m grateful to have had those things taught to me. Moreover, I also discovered another Dorothy — Dorothy L. Sayers — around the same time, but in a different class, and her effect on my faith was electrifying. Mentally and spiritually, I was more prepared than I’d ever been to go deeper with my reading, to “meet” and engage those with differing views.

But what’s interesting is that Parker, too, taught me to be a better Christian writer. Not intentionally, of course. But the techniques and ideas I picked up from reading and re-reading her work helped me to find a voice of my own, one that represented my own beliefs as fully as her voice represented hers.

Many reviewers will tell you never to insert yourself into your own reviewing. Dorothy Parker blithely ignored such advice. She invited readers into her innermost thoughts and feelings about the work she was reviewing, achieving a rare level of openness about what she was doing and how she was doing it. Every time I make a conscious effort to avoid jargon in my own writing, I think of her observing in the middle of a review, “If you were a real book reviewer, you would say, ‘Miss Hurst has chosen a far larger canvas than is her wont.’ I wish I could talk like that without getting all hot and red.” But she was a real reviewer, and such frankness — a blend of confidence and vulnerability — was an integral part of that.

She could be honest about her own lifestyle and ideology, too. Parker was a socialist at a time when many members of the intelligentsia held that you were either a socialist or a fascist — a mentality that drove quite a few straight into the arms of socialism. But Parker’s eyes were not closed to her side’s faults. Some of her sharpest critiques were of fellow socialists like Upton Sinclair; in a review of his book Money Writes!, she suggested he had become a “confirmed belly-acher.”

“Many Socialists, and I say it though my heart and soul are with the cause of Socialism, get to be that way,” she added.

Parker’s worldview may look naïve or misguided or both, but at least she was willing to acknowledge many of its weaknesses. That kind of willingness would serve us all well, whatever our views. As for the heavy drinking and the affairs and the suicide attempts — well, no one ever criticized her more mercilessly than she criticized herself, in private and in public.

But Dorothy Parker wasn’t all about criticism. In the fifty years since her death, her reputation has been whittled down to that of a cutting wit, and in some ways that’s fair. When your nemesis is A. A. Milne of Winnie-the-Pooh fame, you’re probably a pretty snarky person. (One of her best-remembered lines is from a review of one of the Pooh books for her “Constant Reader” column in The New Yorker: “Tonstant Weader fwowed up.”) But when she loved a piece of work, she could gush like a teenage fangirl. Her raving about Ernest Hemingway’s early writing gave him a boost when he very much needed one. (He, in turn, was a complete jerk to her, but that’s a rant for another day.) She hated and loved with equal enthusiasm, and that’s one of the things I love best about her.

In the age of social media, when you can put your opinion of a movie or book out there and then watch it die the death of a thousand cuts, I remember how fearlessly Dorothy Parker expressed hers — and I keep on putting mine out there. Though she sometimes downplayed the importance of reviews as a genre, the casual brilliance she displayed in her own — the fact that she never phoned it in — makes me think that something in her knew that following the arts, having opinions about the arts, and talking about the arts really did matter.

In fact, in my case, it looks like all those Christians who say that sending your kids to college will expose them to people with dangerous worldviews were absolutely right. It happened to me. Following a voice alien to me in many ways, I took a step outside my comfort zone. And I’m a better writer — and maybe even a better person — for it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *