Books

Why We Read Joan Didion


The iconic author turns 78. And she’s as tough as ever.



Why read Joan Didion? Because after nearly 50 years of books and essays, the quintessential Californian is still one of the sharpest prose stylists in the language, even when writing about personal and devastating loss. She calls it as she sees it, and she never flinches.

“The smoke of creation rises from those dry-ice sentences,” wrote Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic about one of Didion’s early novels. It was her originality and the cold-fire accuracy of her writer’s eye that struck Kael. And for modern authors, especially women, she remains a touchstone.

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal

“Why should I read Didion is like asking why should I walk anywhere when I could drive. She is exercise for the mind, a weight-bearing work-out for the heart.”

Didion takes no prisoners. Never did. The mistress of the withering phrase, she was skewering hypocrites before most of us were born. In the 60s, she punctured the SoCal myth in novels like Play It As It Lays and revealed Hollywood’s hucksterism in the nonfiction essays of Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Over the years, she moved onto politics and the larger social scheme, pinpointing the decay and disintegration at the heart of our most cherished institutions. Despair doesn’t faze her. Maybe nothing does.

Caroline Leavitt, Pictures of You and Coming Back to Me

“Why should we read Didion? Because her prose is like a pulse inside of you – you don’t forget it.  Her books are so brave, so bold, so shockingly honest. It’s as if she broke open her vein and bled on the page. She’s been through the unimaginable and she’s turned it into art, and isn’t that what all writers want to do?”

Joan Didion doesn’t spare herself. Never has. The White Album chronicled her nervous breakdown in 1968, and her two most recent books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, eschewed any trace of sentimentality as she turned her hawk-like gaze on her own mourning – first for her husband of 40-plus years and then for their daughter. It’s all grist for her ever-churning mill: experience to examine, to dissect, to describe with no gloss or padding.

Lauren Slater, Welcome to My Country and The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals

“In an age where the essentials of life ­– place, people, memory, mourning – seem ever more ephemeral, Didion’s writing reminds us that these things are in fact essential, constituting who we are as human beings: cathected, connected, grieving, enchanted, living with loss, continually learning.”

The hollow center of the American dream. Weakness, instability, the failure of movements to live up to their ideals. The death of a husband. The death of a child. These are hard enough to take, to survive with anything like our minds intact. To turn them into art? That takes something more.

Lauren Groff, The Monsters of Templeton and Arcadia

What makes her required reading for me is the way that her work – and her person – acts as a corrective to a deep well of complacency that I hold sometimes inside myself. Her politics are in many ways opposite to mine and her iciness runs counter to my deepest impulses, which would be to give humanity a huge warm hug at desperate moments; but too much affirmation ends in stunted thinking, and too much empathy ends in sentimentality. Nobody has ever accused Didion of either failing. I warm my hands at her fire.”

These writers read Didion for courage, for inspiration. To truly see what we look at everyday. And we can, too. If you know her work, re-read it. If you don’t, now’s the time. But be prepared. She peels away the layers, the gauze. Joan Didion gets at the heart.

We read Didion because we’re strong enough to take it.

 

The Essential Didion:

1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics) (1968): Essays about life in California, and the modern world.

2. Play It As It Lays: A Novel (1970): Unsentimental fiction that cuts to the bone.  You’ll never view Hollywood the same way again.

3. The White Album: Essays (FSG Classics) (1979, reprinted in We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction, 2006): Autobiographical essays that string together to a kind of memoir.

4. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005): Mourning her husband’s death and her daughter’s ill health without any illusions.

5. Blue Nights (2011): Didion takes on her own aging, again without pity.

 

Clea Simon’s most recent mystery, True Grey, is out this month. She can be reached via her website, www.cleasimon.com.

 

 

 

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