Toward a Unified Theory of Joan Didion

Writer Joan Didion
Joan Didion. Photo: Christopher Felver/Corbis

“Self-absorption is general, as is self-doubt.” That’s the first line of Joan Didion’s 1979 broadside on Woody Allen. The sentence unites her ostensible target, Allen, the audiences that were lining up to see his films, and the Zeitgeist of which both seemed, like real linen and vegetarianism and not smoking (then a novelty), to be essential parts. In the New York Review of Books letters page, three Allen partisans shot back at Didion, and she issued a two-word reply: “Oh, wow.” None of them had suggested that Didion belonged to the class she was deriding, but in hindsight, of course, she did.

There follows in the Manhattan essay one of Didion’s signature analogies: “The paradigm for the action in these recent Woody Allen movies is high school.” It’s the sort of comparison she would return to in her later political writings, comparing “communicants” in the political process of the 1988 presidential election to candidates for student-body office, saying of Bill Clinton, “No one who ever passed through an American public high school could have watched the current president of the United States running for office in 1992 and failed to recognize the familiar predatory sexuality of the provincial adolescent”; and writing of Dick Cheney, “The personality that springs to mind is that of the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet.”

The temptation with Didion is always to quote, and at length, to let her sentences overwhelm your own because they’re so much better than yours (by which I mean mine). Having read that Didion used to type out Hemingway to learn how to write, in my 20s I did the same. Then I just switched to Didion. I would type out “The White Album.” I would type out “Goodbye to All That,” skipping the epigraph. I would type out the Allen piece. Once I began an essay with the copycat line, “Sadness is general, as is solipsism,” because I figured those who got it would keep reading, and those who didn’t get it would too.

It’s always seemed to me that the Allen piece was something of a hinge in Didion’s career, the spot where her work takes its turn away from her life and into our politics. Her point is that, though Allen’s audience and admiring critics saw themselves in Allen’s “faux adults,” these characters seemed to her like “nothing with which large numbers of people would want to identify” and indeed didn’t resemble people outside the film, media, and art industries (i.e., jocks or the working class or Republicans or people who still ate steak). Yet both Allen’s characters and Didion’s diagnosis of them have been prophetic. They are “presented as adults, as sentient men and women in the most productive years of their lives, but their concerns and conversations are those of clever children, ‘class brains,’ acting out a yearbook fantasy of adult life.”

The step from yearbook to Facebook is no step at all. If self-absorption is still general (self-doubt, too), perhaps it’s because a slice of the generation born around and after 1979 learned it from watching Allen and reading Didion, and then broadcast it online. I have in mind some conversations going on about Didion this year, as she’s become a model for Céline, an icon on the back of a leather jacket, and the subject of a biography, The Last Love Song, by Tracy Daugherty. His book isn’t perfect, and suffers from the fact that Didion declined to speak to him, but he does a fine job of presenting the whole of her work at a time when a tug-of-war is going on among her admirers, many of whom are anxious about what it means to be one of her admirers. In Elle, we read of a struggle between “the fashion girls” and “the literary girls,” over “who owns Joan Didion?” In the Awl, Haley Mlotek wrote a long, beautifully turned, summary-defying essay about the perils of identifying with Didion and projecting that identification online as “a certain shortcut to stand in for the person you want to present to the world.” In response, my colleague Molly Fischer pointed out that to do so is like putting Didion on a list of things worth living for like the one Allen’s character speaks into his Dictaphone at the end of Manhattan, which Didion mocked as “the ultimate consumer report.” Yet, as she pointed out, a little regretfully, “Liking, listing, and sharing are how you announce a self.

I read these pieces this spring when I was still living in England, near the end of four years removed from life in New York, and it seemed to me that I would be returning to a foreign country, one where, for some people, especially young writers, the question “Who do you like to read?” had become confused with the question “Who are you?” “Style is character,” Didion has often said. It’s a line of hers I’ve never believed, at least not entirely. Style can also be a mask. And in a similar way, identifying oneself with a literary icon (especially as icon) can only obscure the real self. So much the worse if everybody else in town is doing the same thing — then what sets you apart in high school at 17 makes you a cliché in Brooklyn at 27. In Didion’s case, this has transpired during the decade in which she published memoirs about the loss of her husband and daughter, in the era of internet hero worship, and ascended to the constellation of badass women venerated online. It’s understandable that this should be anxiety-inducing, but here anxiety should be resisted. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving Joan Didion, whether you’re a 20-something woman who’d wear Celine if she could afford it, or a Gen X man in corduroys. I’ve always rejected Caitlin Flanagan’s claim, in an Atlantic essay from 2012, that “to really love Joan Didion — to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase — you have to be female.”

I don’t know what jasmine smells like. I can’t distinguish organdy from other forms of cotton. Even if I read Didion, as Nabokov stipulated all literature should be read, with a dictionary at hand, many of the details about clothes and household objects are lost on me. “Loving” a writer, for me, is a matter of returning to her sentences over and over again, not a matter of identification, aspiration, emotion, or taking her words as Gospel truth, but an attraction of attention. Perhaps that’s a defective — because it’s heartless — definition of love.

I’d be dishonest if I said this troubled me. What I do find discomfiting is the fractured sense of Didion that’s come through in the reviews of Daugherty’s biography. The Allen piece is again the hinge, published at the time of The White Album, when as Didion has said and Daugherty highlights, she decided to stop writing personal essays because she “didn’t want to be Miss Lonelyhearts” and politics became her primary subject. So aside from the actual 80-year-old woman living on East 71st Street and the iconic image in the Céline ad, on the tote bags, etc., there seem to me three Joan Didions going at the moment, with three correlating audiences: Miss Lonelyhearts Joan, the essayist and latter-day grief memoirist read by everyone, but especially by women, for whom her books become totems; NYRB Joan, with a gender-neutral audience old enough to remember when a lengthy piece of hers would turn up in that magazine every few months, which stopped with any regularity in 2006 (this first, gendered division is essentially Flanagan’s); and Joan the novelist, who remains in print but is read only by completists whose completist tendencies might bring them through Run River and Play It As It Lays, even A Book of Common Prayer, but typically not as far as The Last Thing He Wanted, her last work of fiction, published 19 years ago. You’d imagine reading the recent discussion of Didion that these three sets of books were written by three different writers, but they’re governed by a unified sensibility. We separate the three Didions, and ignore any one of them, at our peril.

I came to Didion in the 1990s, through a New York Review of Books subscription and a used mass-market paperback copy of The White Album, the sort of edition you could find on twirling racks in suburban drugstores in the 1980s (which is no longer how any literary works are sold). For the past week I’ve been reading a copy of We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, the red cloth-bound edition published in 2006 whose jacket features Julian Wasser’s portrait of Didion, cigarette in hand, staring out of the driver’s seat of her Daytona yellow Corvette Stingray. This copy was lent to me by a writer in her 20s. The jacket has been discarded. Its pages indicate repeated rereadings and the margins are full of notes. But this stops around page 342, where The White Album ends; Salvador begins on the next page, and Miss Lonelyhearts gives way to NYRB Joan.

The demarcation is no surprise, and my sense is that the neglect holds double for the fiction. Twice, in Brooklyn and in London, I’ve found unscathed first editions of Didion’s 1984 novel Democracy at used bookstores and given them as birthday presents. Their availability and affordability are a sign of the book’s neglect. I recall the reaction of the first recipient of one of these presents. “A novel,” she said. “By Joan Didion. Called Democracy.” A look of amused disbelief. “Great. Thank you.” But there’s something in Democracy that you’ll find little of in Didion’s nonfiction: It’s the book in which she does the most thinking about a formative subject in her life, the Vietnam War, yet it’s a book that rarely enters into current discussions of her work.

Which brings me back to Mlotek, who sees in the Céline ad Didion’s beatification: “Joan Didion is one of the greatest writers Western culture has ever produced or had, and that is, it’s true, not up for debate.” Yet she’s encountered some people with doubts, doubts that bleed into self-doubt: “This is completely anecdotal, but in the last year or so I’ve had numerous conversations with intelligent, reasonable women who have leaned across dimly lit bars to whisper, ‘I don’t think I like [redacted],’” Joan Didion being one of those names, as though this were shameful.”

In some corners it’s more like a point of pride. Literary reputation is a cyclical phenomenon, perhaps especially for writers whose fame passes into the extraliterary realm of the image, the idol, the icon. Didion has always had her enemies, and it’s likely that the day will come when the knives really come out. It’s a process that’s already beginning. Here’s Thomas Mallon, the right-leaning critic and historical novelist, reviewing Daugherty’s biography in The Wall Street Journal under the headline “Slouching Toward Conformity”:

The writer’s early books, both novels and nonfiction, employed a genuinely original voice and style, one of the most remarkable in late-20th-century American letters. Ms. Didion, now 80 years old, conveyed an outlier’s vision of personal and political morality, a belief system that was libertarian, unsentimental, distinctly Western. Her later work drifted into the liberal mainstream of the New York Review of Books; its message became muddled, its forms repetitive. If ever there were a writer in need of a critical sorting out, one for whom distinctions should be made between a career’s exceptional achievements and barren phases, it is almost certainly Joan Didion.

The pattern is set: Certain ground will be ceded, the 1960s skeptic, Miss Lonelyhearts in California. Mallon is echoing a line Flanagan voiced in 2012:

Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore. Where was the Didion who was a Goldwater girl and a Nixon voter, the Republican at Berkeley, the woman who didn’t care at all about the prevailing literary and political fashions, who went to the supermarket in an old bikini and boarded first-class compartments of international flights in bare feet, and who therefore—because she thought about things always on her own terms—could see things in front of us that we’d been missing all along? How could someone that original turn into another tired espouser of the most doctrinaire New York Review of Books political opinions?

Keep your bikini on, Joan! The “critical sorting out” Mallon is calling for is clearly a devaluation of her post–White Album work. Flanagan would like to think of her as a prose style in big sunglasses with a glamorous packing list. (About that packing list: It’s so often brought up without mention that the point is not what it contains, but what’s missing — a watch. The reporter never knew what time it was, and often had to call somebody to ask. Similarly the line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” isn’t about the wonderfulness of stories but the necessity of their falsehood; I’ve always taken it to mean, “We tell ourselves stories in order not to go mad.”) But it seems to me a more useful understanding of Didion’s work, one Daugherty’s biography helps advance, would recognize the later nonfiction as an extension and amplification of the early nonfiction’s achievements. It would also see the novels as vital continuations of the same project, workings out of problems in style and sense painted on blank canvases. Such an understanding would turn Democracy from a bookshelf ornament to a central work about Vietnam, the other historical hinge in Didion’s career.

One difference between the Didion of the early ’70s and the Didion of the early ’80s is that in the ’70s she wrote about sitting on the beach in Hawaii, thinking about the body counts in Vietnam, because her editor at Life wouldn’t send her to report on it herself. “Some of the guys are going out,” her editor, Loudon Wainwright, told her. It would take another editor, Robert Silvers of the NYRB, to correct this sexism by sending her to El Salvador in 1982. Here she stayed on the beach and saw the corpses for herself. Her further work would be on Miami as the doorway to U.S. entanglements in the Caribbean and Latin America, California, New York City, and U.S. national politics. Mallon brushes it all aside: “Much of her subsequent nonfiction [post-1979] became abstract and tendentious and occasionally just bad,” he writes. “By 2006, Ms. Didion could write of how ‘an administration can be overtaken by events that defeat the ameliorative power of adroit detail management’—whatever that means.”

Actually, its meaning is pretty simple. The line comes from Didion’s last great political essay, on Dick Cheney, and it gets at a crucial aspect of recent history. Here’s the passage that it comes from, after Didion has pointed out that Cheney, as Ford’s chief of staff, once wrote a memo about switching White House salt dishes for saltshakers:

One aspect common to accounts of White House life is the way in which negative events tend to be interpreted as internal staffing failures, errors on the order of the little dishes of salt with the funny little spoons. Cheney did not take the lesson he might have taken from being in the White House at the time Saigon fell, which was that an administration can be overtaken by events that defeat the ameliorative power of adroit detail management. He took a more narrow lesson, the one that had to do with the inability of a White House to pursue victory if Congress “tied its hands.”

This leads to Cheney’s concept that “this was a ‘wartime presidency’ and so had special powers.” Didion’s argument about it is neither “abstract,” “tendentious,” or “doctrinaire,” and it’s a crucial insight into our recent history: Presidents wage war because it allows them to exert power without the hindrances of an antagonistic Congress. Much of what Didion wrote about between the Reagan and Obama administrations is now familiar history — the Democratic Party’s systematic marginalization of Jesse Jackson, the depredations of Kenneth Starr, the true motives behind the GOP’s faith-based social initiatives — but at the time she was going against the grain, subject to no one’s “cookie-cutter.” For three decades she was one of the country’s most lucid and and idiosyncratic political writers. But this is the first Joan they’ll come to erase. It will take a unified theory of Didion to defend her.

Toward a Unified Theory of Joan Didion