Joan Didion Has Nailed America’s Weirdness for Half a Century

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Sarah Moroz
·6 min read
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Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty
Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty

In The Center Will Not Hold, the 2017 Netflix documentary about Joan Didion’s life, New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als said of the author, “The weirdness of America somehow got into this person’s bones and came out on the other side of a typewriter.” A new collection of vintage pieces by Didion, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, further proves this alchemy to be true.

Didion’s uncanny strength is to be both of-the-moment and beyond-the-moment. Her writing rests on “the idea that the truth is provisional, and the only thing backing it up is who you are at the time you wrote this or that, and that your joys and biases and prejudices are part of writing, too,” Als notes in the collection’s foreword. But she is equally “farsighted,” her timely inquiries identifying wider behavioral patterns that make her writing seem oracular.

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The 12 pieces, some published as early as 1968 and the latest in 2000, join her canon of novels, reportage, and screenplays. “As with any writer, it is always revealing and interesting to see the early work and state of mind,” Shelley Wanger, Didion’s editor since 1991, said in an email. Als, via email, concurred: “You want to understand and feel connected to her process of intellection. The new book lifts a curtain on those early years, when she was a different kind of writer—more directly opinionated.” Half the pieces here are from the same era as her landmark nonfiction collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, published in 1968—and in no way feel second-tier, so it’s unclear why they have re-materialized only now.

The collection provides perspicacious glimpses: into the flawed framework of the press, into the spurious narratives at support group meetings, into larger-than-life personalities like Ernest Hemingway and Robert Mapplethorpe. These glimpses illuminate Didion’s ability to infuse breadth of observation, wit, and pathos within concise parameters. “I do not think in abstracts,” she noted in “Why I Write” (published in The New York Times Magazine in 1976). “My attention veered inexorably back to the specific, to the tangible.” Didion deploys specifics to get at social ambiguities, at the unspoken. She is attentive but skeptical—towards others, and towards herself. The latter skepticism is often expressed regarding the very exercise of writing: a self-audit folding into the choices of how to depict the examined subject. Incongruities and absurdities are inflected with “humor and a dry little sigh of exasperation,” as Als puts it in the foreword: bemusement mixing with disquiet.

The contemporaneity of these writings often gives the reader moments of whiplash. In “Alicia and the Underground Press” (published in the Saturday Evening Post, 1968), Didion dismantles “conventional press postures” and laments “the inability of all of us to speak to one another in any direct way, the failure of American newspapers to ‘get through.’” Reading this in the present moment—while reckoning with post-Trump media accountability, as well as problematic racial and gender representation within the field of reporting—it’s discomfiting to see the limitations of the journalistic milieu remain so a half century later. Moreover, Didion admonishes the media for alleging to dish out impartial truths: “I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias.” Yet Didion’s powerful voice led the way, in fact, to loosening that institutional journalistic tone. Illusory objectivity is not as grave a problem as it once was, and her style had a hand in spurring a more fallible—and therefore more trustworthy—tone and approach.

Didion is an expert at outing a disingenuous narrative. In “A Trip to Xanadu” (published in 1968 in the Saturday Evening Post), she deems press magnate William Randolph Hearst’s California mansion “a sand castle, an implausibility.” Its symbolism—flashy surface with dubious underpinnings—could be applied to almost any of the American mythologies she deftly deconstructs.

In “Pretty Nancy” (Saturday Evening Post, 1968) she surveys Nancy Reagan—then the wife of the governor of California—in her careful performance of normalcy. Didion, slyly inspecting her in the company of a TV newsman and two cameramen, comments on the “cinéma vérité study… watching and being watched.” It’s a Real Housewives-style voyeurism, replete with hard-to-grasp boundaries of what constitutes reality and what is expressly staged for an audience.

In “Getting Serenity” (Saturday Evening Post, 1968), Didion examines the cultishness of betterment, a kind of pre-wellness narrative in which people strive to patch up the black hole of their addictions. She notes the oversight at the center of this effort: “mea culpa always turns out to be not entirely mea.” Moreover, "spiritual" leveling up is something she discredits the merit of altogether. Rather than aspiring to a more placid lifestyle, “serenity,” she notes, “is a word I associate with death.”

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In the Saturday Evening Post article “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” she dissects “that most conventional middle-class confrontation,” namely: “the child vs. the Admissions Committee.” Grateful to her father for shrugging when she didn't get into her first-choice college, she marvels at the pressures placed on “children whose lives from the age of two or three are a series of perilously programmed steps” for standardized success. Parents demand their child “make good not only for himself but for the greater glory of his father and mother… we are deluding ourselves if we pretend that desirable schools benefit the child alone.” (One need only gesture at Lori Loughlin or Felicity Huffman, who landed time in federal prison for meddling with college admissions, to confirm this predicament has gone truly haywire.)

In the most recent piece from this collection, “everywoman.com" (published in The New Yorker, 2000), Didion parses the cultural weight of Martha Stewart, noting that she “presents herself not as an authority but as the friend who has ‘figured it out’; the enterprising if occasionally manic neighbor who will waste no opportunity to share an educational footnote.” Didion recognizes that, rather than some caricatured Betty Crocker, “the dreams and the fears into which Martha Stewart taps are not of ‘feminine’ domesticity but of female power.” It’s a premonition of the way conversations around gender and authority would come to be reframed—if incrementally, and grudgingly.

Didion explores how her own authorial self-worth was forged in “Telling Stories” (published in New West, 1978). She recalls wrestling with imposter syndrome in a creative writing class: “I listened to other people’s stories read aloud and I despaired of ever knowing what they knew.” She experienced the paralyzing refrain lurking behind every creative person’s ambition: “a yearning to be good and a fright that I never would be… that any sentence I committed to paper would expose me as not good enough.” But the irony is, of course, that she articulates these fears in near perfect prose.

Superstition and paranoia forestall most creative types from probing their methodology, alarmed that it might unravel or “ruin” it. (Anyone who has read an artist profile knows exactly what this maddeningly evasive hedging sounds like.) But Didion is not scared of atomizing what she does. That fearlessness is why she’s so magnetic to a reader. It’s not only that she’s astute. It’s that she is always more curious than cautious.

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