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General Statements on Parker's Book Reviews

Nancy A. Walker

. . . . Whether serious or comic, Parker's reviews ring with the utmost candor; although she creates distinctive personae in the presentation of her opinions, the medium of the book review allowed for an expression of personal tastes that can provide insight into a woman of integrity and high standards.

The tone and style of the early New Yorker encouraged the kind of book review that seemed to come naturally to Parker. New Yorker founder Harold Ross and the young writers he hired were deliberate in their attempt to appeal to the urban sophisticate or would-be sophisticate, and the magazine thus fostered a stance compounded of gaiety and world-weariness, in which little was considered sacred and decided tastes regarding the arts were not merely welcome, but cultivated. Few articles -- including book reviews -- were signed with the authors' actual names; New Yorker writers typically used their initials or such labels as Parker's "Constant Reader." Yet within this near-anonymity, writers developed distinctive voices that marked their pieces as their own, and they often used the first-person pronoun as a means of both personalizing their remarks and seeing to speak directly to the individual reader. . . .

Even in the context of the New Yorker ethos, however, Dorothy Parker developed -- or revealed -- a much more distinctive personality than did her peers. Moreover, as though her pseudonym "Constant Reader" were prophetic, her book reviews in Esquire three decades later are so clearly from the same pen as to suggest that the reviews were an important forum for Parker's views on life as well as the literary scene. If the New Yorker fostered the authority of the individual reader rather than that of specialized expertise, Parker took the process a step further: she derives her authority precisely from seeming not to be one at all, projecting personae composed of enthusiasms, prejudices, and personal quirks, and developing a distinctive style -- a style in which to deliver her no-nonsense opinions. . . .

[Walker then outlines and discusses the characteristics of Parker's reviews, including the use of a variety of female personae (innocent and mock-na´ve, urban and urbane, defensive against stereotyping, maternal), straightforward assessments, attacks on bad writing, preference for candor, and subtle questioning of authority.]

It is through Parker's refusal to claim authority, then, that her book reviews achieve it. She presents readers with an unpretentious, sometimes self-mocking voice that, while it expresses strong opinions, pretends no Olympian knowledge or status. Her use of humor is even-handed: she uses it to make fun of shallow, silly, or just plain bad published work, but she also turns it on herself in order to personalize her critiques. If at times this technique constitutes a conscious pose, it is not a mask behind which Parker hides, but instead a means of conveying what she values. And, as a bonus, the review contain some of her own best, most spirited writing, which is the reason, finally, that we continue to read them with such pleasure.

From Nancy A. Walker, "The Remarkably Constant Reader: Dorothy Parker as Book Reviewer." Studies in American Humor New Series 3:4 (1997), 1-14.

 Fran Lebowitz

The kind of general consensus about Dorothy Parker, from a literary point of view, is that she wrote a few very good short stories, and otherwise kind of wasted her talent being a wisecracker. And although I think that some of her short stories are wonderful, I think that her best stuff are book reviews. For me, to read a book review written in the 1920s of a popular novel of the 1920s -- I've never heard of the novel, I don't know who the writer is, I don't know any of the references that were topical -- and still be laughing out loud, that's really a much rarer talent than being a good short story writer.

From "Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell?: The Infamous Dorothy Parker," Stage production, Arts & Entertainment Television, 1994.

 Gloria Steinem

Length doesn't increase depth, necessarily, and just because her little characterizations of a book were short doesn't mean they weren't true. The reason a lot of them stuck, probably, is because they had some truth.

From "Would You Kindly Direct Me to Hell?: The Infamous Dorothy Parker," Stage production, Arts & Entertainment Television, 1994.

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