Literary reputation is based on talent, performance, and overall achievement, or so one would have thought. Alas, to think so is often to be mistaken, for much else, sometimes a great deal else, comes into play, elevating some reputations, sinking others.
Think of Willa Cather, who for so many years was denied her rightful place among the great American novelists because her novels were thought insufficiently modernist. Or consider the high reputations enjoyed during their lifetimes by Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Philip Roth in part for their supposed courage in writing in a vividly detailed way about sex. Would a homely Susan Sontag have attracted the same literary attention as did the strikingly attractive Susan Sontag? Or what about Theodore Dreiser, one of the most powerful of American novelists, who is still often excluded from the American canon because of deficiencies in his style? Then there is James Gould Cozzens, who was knocked out of the box of literary respectability by a single attacking essay by Dwight Macdonald in, of all places, COMMENTARY (“By Cozzens Possessed,” January 1958), from which Cozzens’s literary reputation has never recovered.
Some writers enjoy high literary reputation because their politics, or even mere identity, accord with the Zeitgeist, or time-spirit, of the current day: black, feminist, gay-lesbian writers, too numerous to mention. (The New York Times Book Review, someone casually remarked to me the other day, is no longer interested in reviewing books by white heterosexual men.) Some literary reputations, then, seem bloated; some unfairly depressed; and others unfathomable.
High on the list of the unfathomable for me has long been that of Joan Didion (1934–2021). In her day, she won all the usual prizes—the National Book Award, the PEN Center Lifetime Achievement Award, the MacDowell Medal, the George Polk Award for investigative journalism, honorary doctorates from Harvard and Yale, and the publication of two stout volumes of her works in the canon-setting Library of America. The Last Love Song, by Tracy Daugherty, a 700-page biography of Didion, was published during her lifetime. Now we have The World According to Joan Didion, by Evelyn McDonnell, a fawning study of her life and work with thick gobs of feminism thrown in at no extra charge.
What is it about Joan Didion’s writing that seems so greatly to impress other people, I ask myself, when it leaves me so unimpressed?
Didion wrote five novels, all slender volumes marked, not to say marred, by their author’s depression. But Didion’s own preference came to be for the extended essay. “Writing a novel, which is what I thought I’d like to do,” she said in one of her many interviews, “turns out to be not very gratifying in the end because nobody reads them any more.” Today she is best known, even revered, for those essays and her two books of public grieving—The Year of Magical Thinking, about the sudden passing of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and Blue Nights, about the death at 39 of pancreatitis of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne.
Didion was at her best when she insinuated herself into her subject, at her worst when the subject was herself. Her lengthy essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” (1967), a close-up view of the drug culture of the mid-1960s in California, provides an example of Didion at her best. In this essay she is able to capture the full horror of lives at whose center is drugs. Near its end the essay closes on the corker detail of a comic-book-reading, five-year-old girl whose “mother has for a year now . . . given her both peyote and acid.” Didion writes of these people: “This was not a traditional generational rebellion. At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling.”
Then there’s the Joan Didion writing about herself and her psychological condition, as in the essay called “The White Album.” It begins with the striking sentence, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and goes on from there to report how all her own personal stories, or narratives, have been undermined by experience. “At that time,” she writes, in a characteristic passage, “I believed that my basic affective controls were no longer intact, but now I present this to you as a more cogent question than it might at first appear, a kind of koan of the period.”
Didion claimed to have no politics. “I’m not sure I have a social conscience,” she told the Guardian in an interview. “It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth.” But then, in 1975, she became a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and credited Robert Silvers, its editor, with shaping her thought. “I had no opinion I didn’t run by him first. … An editorial note from Bob would open up new possibilities both in a piece and in life itself. What could have been an empty place suddenly flooded with light and understanding.” Among those pieces was a fairly standard attack on Dick Cheney, and another on Woody Allen. In The World According to Joan Didion, Evelyn McDonnell writes that for the New York Review of Books, “Didion wrote investigative journalism, book reviews, philosophical essays, and war reportage that transformed her from a celebrity chronicler of pop culture, counterculture, and subcultures into one of the leading social and political commentators of her time.” Under the tutelage of Robert Silvers, Didion joined left-wing politics to her generally gloomy views.
Toward the end of her life, Joan Didion achieved something close to celebrity status. A documentary film, The Center Will Not Hold, directed by her nephew Griffin Dunne, was released in 2017. In it Didion holds forth about … herself chiefly. After her death, an auction of her furniture, household goods, and photographs of herself fetched prices resembling those attained by the goods sold at auction of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis: 23 monogrammed linen napkins for $14,000, 13 blank notebooks for $11,000, etc. Photographs of Didion appear on the covers of nearly all her books, photographs that show a woman of the slightly boyish type the French call gamine. She is usually holding a cigarette, often in or in front of her yellow Corvette Stingray. Didion was barely five feet and weighed less than a hundred pounds. Time, as we know, can be a cruel sculptor, and it was hard on her, leaving her in her later years afflicted with Parkinson’s. In one of the few attacks on her, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison described Didion as resembling “a neurasthenic Cher.”
If attacks were few, praise for Didion during and after her lifetime was more than plentiful. At a memorial for her attended by various Hollywood figures, Shelley Wanger, her editor at Knopf, called her “one of the great writers of the past century.” David Rieff, Caitlin Flanagan, Hilton Als, John Leonard, Calvin Trillin, and Zadie Smith are among those who have celebrated her lavishly. Much of the praise is for Didion’s style, some for her authority, some for her unique place as a woman of great style and authority. The novelist Zadie Smith’s encomium strikes all three chords:
With notable exceptions, Didion was a woman who did not so much express opinions, or emotions, as interrogate both. If this still strikes us as unusual, it seemed unprecedented to me, when reading her for the first time in the late eighties. That she was a woman mattered, very much. When women writers of my generation speak in awed tones of Didion’s “style,” I don’t think it’s the shift dresses or the sunglasses, the cigarettes or commas or even the em dashes that we revere, even though all those things were fabulous. It was the authority. The authority of tone.…. I remain grateful for the day I picked up Slouching Toward Bethlehem and realized that a woman could speak without hedging her bets, without hemming and hawing, without making nice, without poeticisms, without sounding pleasant or sweet, without deference, and even without doubt. . . . She gave you confidence. Shored you up.
Yet Didion disclaimed any serious connection to feminism. In “The Women’s Movement” (1972), she wrote: “To those of us who remain committed mainly to the exploration of moral distinctions and ambiguities, the feminist analysis may have seemed a particularly narrow and cracked determinism.” She allowed that “many women are victims of condescension and exploitation and sex-role stereotyping was scarcely news, but neither was it news that other women are not: nobody forces women to buy the package.” She found the thinking behind the women’s movement coarse, those who espoused it ignorant of its ideological base, its adherents women “too ‘sensitive’ for the difficulties of adult life, women unequipped for reality and grasping at the movement as a rationale for denying that reality.”
Even so, Evelyn McDonnell derides the notion these words convey. “Not a feminist, my ass,” she writes, though she allows that, as a feminist, Didion stood in need of some consciousness-raising. “Those who critique Didion’s gender politics should take a look at these early articles,” McDonnell writes, “in which Didion is not merely her own woman but encouraging other women to be their own women, well at ease, not hindered by jealousy, driven by self-respect.”
Overlooked by all the praise are the neuroses that sit at the center of the Didion persona and pervade much of her writing. She suffered migraines; she was anorexic; she had breakdowns; she had neuropathy and later shingles; she had a drinking problem (at the close of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she allows that when researching her work on the book’s lead essay, she was herself “out of her head on gin and speed”); she was terrified of snakes; and over all lay a thick veil of depression. Hilton Als, who admired Didion above all for her writing on gender and race, refers to her “romance with despair.” McDonnell says that “in Didion’s world, every silver lining has a cloud.” Zadie Smith writes that “the overarching theme of her work was decline—of our politics, the environment, truth, intellectualism.”
Far from hiding or working around this depression, Joan Didion wallows in it. In the preface to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, she reports: “I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate.” In the lead essay of The White Album, she reprints a portion of the psychological report on herself rendered when she went in to be checked for feelings she had experienced of vertigo, nausea, and fear of passing out: “Patient’s thematic productions on the Thematic Apperception Test emphasize her fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic, and depressive view of the world around her. It is as though she feels deeply that all human effort is foredoomed to failure, a conviction which seems to push her further into a dependent, passive withdrawal. In her view she lives in a world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended, and, above all, devious motivations which commit them irretrievably to conflict and failure.”
This may stand as the most incisive literary criticism of Joan Didion yet written.
Today Didion is best known for The Year of Magical Thinking, her book about her reaction to the sudden death of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne, on December 30, 2003, a month before their 40th wedding anniversary, and of her daughter’s illness. The book sold more than a million copies, was 24 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, won the National Book Award, and was later made into a one-character play in which Vanessa Redgrave played Didion. To this day, one hears of people giving grieving friends the book in aid of their consolation.
Magical thinking is the belief that the force of will or induced conviction can translate into action. In Didion’s case, it meant denying her husband’s death in the hope of bringing him back to life. She did not remove his clothes from their Manhattan apartment, nor did she alter anything else that was in place before his death by heart attack while awaiting dinner at the age of 71. It also meant her insisting on an autopsy at which she wanted to be present. Not that Dunne’s death was altogether a surprise. He had been diagnosed with a weakened heart and had had a pacemaker installed. “Yet I had always at some level apprehended, because I was born fearful, that some events in my life would be beyond my ability to control or manage them,” Didion writes. “Some events would just happen. This was one of those events. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
One used to think of mourning as public, grieving in the realm of the private. Mourning had a public dignity, grieving was personal. No longer. Now, in the age of the therapeutic, one may grieve in public. On local television news one regularly encounters weeping relatives of people murdered on the streets of our cities. One wonders how much The Year of Magical Thinking, a 247-page package of public grieving, has had to do with bringing about this fundamental change in the national mores.
Missing from The Year of Magical Thinking is any closely detailed account of the Didion-Dunne marriage of the kind one would think a novelist might provide. We learn that they worked together, and at the end of the day they would often edit each other’s writing. They co-wrote movie scripts, none of them all that notable, but screenwriting was the major source of their income and allowed them to live in Malibu, Brentwood, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We learn from Didion that Dunne had “a horrible temper…. Everything would set him off.” We don’t learn how he dealt with her fame being greater than his. We don’t know which of them could not have a child, and thus their need to adopt. At one point, Didion reports that they contemplated a divorce. She also informs us that the night before his death, her husband told her that “everything he had done … was worthless.” (I have read three of Dunne’s novels, and all I can remember is the one that opens with a producer having two piles of screenplays on his desk, one denoted “shit,” the other “not shit.”)
The Year of Magical Thinking and with it Blue Evenings read as if they were written from the couch—the psychoanalyst’s couch. Both books have the feel of a chattering analysand, admitting to her own sadness, weakness, fragility. In Blue Evenings, she reports, “I feel unsteady, unbalanced, as if my nerves are misfiring, which may or may not be an exact description of what my nerves are actually doing.” Later: “I tell you this true story just to prove that I can. That my frailty has not yet reached a point at which I can no longer tell a true story.” And again: “Surprisingly, there were no abnormalities to explain why I felt as frail as I did.” At several points in The Year of Magical Thinking and in Blue Evenings, one wants to put the book down, announce “your 50 minutes are up,” and then ask the author to pay the desk on her way out.
In an essay titled “Why I Write,” Didion reports: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” The first sentence echoes the famous line “How do I know what I think until I write about it.” The second, though, writing to discover one’s desires and fears, is a stranger, even a peculiar, matter.
Tracy Daugherty, Didion’s biographer, claims that “she was a powerful voice for my generation.… She told us who we are, who we were…. She helped us admit things we intuited but rarely aired; the fragility of our national myths and the constant nearness of death.” Interesting that Daugherty, who is 68, refers to Joan Didion’s effect on his generation, when Didion, 20 years older than he, was of a different generation, mine actually.
What this suggests is that Didion was one of the first writers to rise to prominence under the reign of the triumphant therapeutic age. One can admire her writing only if one lives by the main tenets of that age. Among these are the confessional as the main mode of truth, vulnerability and fragility and despair as central to the human condition, self-esteem and personal happiness ranking higher in value than honor, courage, or generosity of spirit. All this is at the heart of Joan Didion’s writing and explains why she is admired by so many and is of so little interest to me.
Photo: AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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