In the spring of 1967, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, freelance writers married to each other and living in Los Angeles, were engaged to write a regular column for the Saturday Evening Post. This was a good gig. The space they had to fill was neither long nor short—about twelve hundred words, a gallop larger than the Comment that opens this magazine. The Post paid them well, and Didion and Dunne each had to file one piece a month. The column, called “Points West,” entailed their visiting a place of West Coast interest, interviewing a few people or no people, and composing a dispatch. Didion wrote one column about touring Alcatraz, another on the general secretary of a small Marxist-Leninist group. The Post was struggling to stay afloat (it went under two years later), and that chaos let the new columnists shimmy unorthodox ideas past their desperate editors. Didion’s first effort was a dispatch from her parents’ house. A few weeks later, her “Points West” was about wandering Newport, Rhode Island. (“Newport is curiously Western,” she announced in the piece, sounding awfully like a writer trying to get away with something.) The column work left time for other projects, and Didion spent the spring through September of 1967 on a ten-thousand-word assignment about the hippie movement, the rest on a novel she’d been struggling with. At some point, an editor suggested that she had the makings of a collection, so she stacked her columns with past articles she liked (a report from Hawaii, the best of some self-help columns she’d churned out while a junior editor at Vogue), set them in a canny order with a three-paragraph introduction, and sent them off. This was “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her first nonfiction book. It has claims to being the most influential essay collection of the past sixty years.
Didion, now eighty-six, has been an object of fascination ever since, boosted by the black-lace renaissance she experienced after publishing “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), her raw and ruminative account of the months following Dunne’s sudden death. Generally, writers who hold readers’ imaginations across decades do so because there’s something unsolved in their project, something that doesn’t square and thus seems subject to the realm of magic. In Didion’s case, a disconnect appears between the jobber-like shape of her writing life—a shape she often emphasizes in descriptions of her working habits—and the forms that emerged as the work accrued. For all her success, Didion was seventy before she finished a nonfiction book that was not drawn from newsstand-magazine assignments. She and Dunne started doing that work with an eye to covering the bills, and then a little more. (Their Post rates allowed them to rent a tumbledown Hollywood mansion, buy a banana-colored Corvette Stingray, raise a child, and dine well.) And yet the mosaic-like nonfiction books that Didion produced are the opposite of jobber books, or market-pitched books, or even useful, fibrous, admirably executed books. These are strange books, unusually shaped. They changed the way that journalistic storytelling and analysis were done.
Because a sentence of Didion is unmistakable, people often presume that her advances were in prose style. The opening of the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” collection announced her voice:
There’s the entwining of sensuous and ominous images. And there’s the fine, tight verbal detail work: the vowel suspensions (“ways an alien place”), the ricocheting consonants (“harsher . . . haunted . . . Mojave”), the softly anagrammatic games of sound (“subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies”). Didion worked hard at her sentences, and no magazine journalist has done better than her best. But style is just the baseline of good writing. Didion’s innovation was something else.
Most writers of nonfiction operate in the sphere of high craft: like a silversmith producing teapots, they work to create elevated and distinctive versions of known objects. A master will produce a range of creative variations, yet the teapots always remain teapots, and the marks of individuation rise from a shared language of form and technique. Didion’s nonfiction was produced in that craftwork tradition, but it operates more in the sphere of art: it declares its own terms and vernacular, and, if successful, conveys meaning in a way that transcends its parts.
The title essay of her second collection, “The White Album” (1979), offers the clearest glimpse of how that reimagination happens. The heart of the essay is a cluster of “Points West” columns: brief reports on protests at San Francisco State, a Huey Newton press conference, a studio visit with the Doors—her normal craftwork as a working writer. When composing the “White Album” essay, Didion lined those pieces up like flagstones in a path. Together, she knew, they had to tell a bigger story, because they came from the same place (coastal California) in the same time (1968) and from the same vantage (hers). But what was the story?
To figure it out, Didion started adding stones from elsewhere in the quarry: circumstances surrounding the production of the newsstand columns, details from her home life. She included an extract from a psychological evaluation she’d had that summer. (“The Rorschach record is interpreted as describing a personality in process of deterioration with abundant signs of failing defenses.”) She wrote about remembering a line by Ezra Pound on the drive to report at San Francisco State. She threaded these bits with what she called flash cuts, scene changes separated by space breaks; in other words, she started with the craft part—the polished sentences, the tidy magazine page—and built outward, collaging what was already published with what wasn’t, reframing and rejuxtaposing what had been previously pinned in pristine prose. This process of redigesting published craftwork into art is how Didion shaped her nonfiction books for fifty years. It made her farseeing, and a thorny voice about the way public stories were told.
The prickliness of Didion’s project was on my mind as I read her new collection, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” (Knopf). “New” here refers mostly to the state of the binding, because the newest thing that Didion contributed is twenty years old. The foreword, very fruitful, is by Hilton Als. The volume’s keystone is a few “Points West” columns from 1968 which she in some cases had collaged into previous books but which have not been reprinted in their original, stand-alone form until now. In that sense, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is less a selected essays than a rejected essays, a director’s un-cut of her older work. Traditionally, this is the sort of collection squeezed out by itchy heirs after an author’s death.
It’s happy news, then, that the book still offers some familiar pleasures. The earliest columns, from the late sixties, remain crisp and engaging on the page (not a given for late-sixties writing). Other essays, such as a piece on the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, from 1989, are, if not exactly urgent, nice to have around. Didion stopped publishing new material in 2011, a silence that’s well earned but bittersweet in light of recent events, and “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” is meant to summon the old feelings. Yet the book ends up a study in the limits of Didion’s prose, because its parts, for all their elegance, don’t make a whole. Devoted readers will find the book unrecognizable as a Didion collection in any real sense.
To understand why, it is useful to go back to the summer of 1967, when Didion was writing her report on the hippies—the title essay of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The late-sixties youth movements purported to be about community and coming together, but Didion saw them as a symptom of a shared society unravelling and public communication breaking down. (The title comes from a Yeats poem that begins, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer.”) “It was the first time I had dealt directly and flatly with the evidence of atomization,” she later explained. Struggling to describe this dissolution, she decided to express the problem structurally. The hippie essay, written as a series of pruned scenes from the Haight-Ashbury separated by breaks, marked her first true use of flash cuts.
The piece “failed to suggest that I was talking about something more general than a handful of children wearing mandalas on their foreheads,” Didion later wrote. But the concept of atomization, and the collage technique, stuck. When Didion was gathering essays for her first collection, she did something notable with a piece she called “Los Angeles Notebook.” She took one of her “Points West” columns, about the Santa Ana wind, and put a flash cut after it. She lopped off the opening to a critics piece she’d written on books by Helen Gurley Brown and dropped that in, followed by another cut. In this way, she built a new essay from the wholes and bits of old material, tracing out flares of life around Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. They were part of one story, but, crucially, they did not connect.
Didion had spent four years failing to write a novel called “Play It as It Lays.” What she disliked in the work in progress, about an actress in Los Angeles, was that it smelled of “novel”; everything seemed formed and directed in a way that was untrue to life. In 1969, after reworking the “Los Angeles Notebook” essay, Didion saw how to make the novel work. “Play It as It Lays” (1970) is commonly said to be about anomie, but more specifically it’s about a world in insular pieces, of characters trapped in their Hollywood realms. (Didion envisioned a novel of tight scenes, consumed in a single sitting—a book written as a movie, in other words, and thus caged within the storytelling rhythms of the industry.) The novel’s short chapters, some of them less than a page, change vantage and jump characters among disparate spheres using freeways and white space. “I played and replayed these scenes and others like them, composed them as if for the camera, trying to find some order, a pattern. I found none,” one of her characters says. “Play It as It Lays” was Didion’s first fiction of atomization.
Didion went on to use the collage technique to assemble the long pieces in “The White Album” and the books that followed, reconsidering her own published craftwork and later bringing that scrutiny to texts produced by other people. Where she saw evidence of atomization in American society, she made efforts to push back.
“The only American newspapers that do not leave me in the grip of a profound physical conviction that the oxygen has been cut off from my brain tissue, very probably by an Associated Press wire, are the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City, and the East Village Other,” Didion wrote in a “Points West” column from 1968 which opens the new collection. She likes the alternative press not because it’s good or useful (“I have never read anything I needed to know in an underground paper”) but because it breaks past a communication barrier. These papers assume that the reader “will understand if they talk to him straight; this assumption of a shared language and a common ethic lends their reports a considerable cogency of style.”
Shared language and a common ethic are precisely what Didion had noticed coming apart in the supposedly liberated togetherness of the late sixties. And the problem, in her view, did not fade when the love beads went away. In “Insider Baseball,” her influential piece for The New York Review of Books, born of tagging along with the Presidential campaigns of 1988, she argued that the so-called “democratic process” had become unlinked from the people it was supposed to speak to and for:
Politics had come to be programming produced for élites, by élites, in a bubble disconnected from others. If this warning seemed eccentric on the eve of electing an institutional Vice-President and, four years later, the Man from Hope, it does not seem so today. The problem Didion first identified in 1967 has been treated as a revelation in recent years.
Her position as a disaffected insider—hanging out with the Doors but crying foul on the Summer of Love, writing for the newsstand but declaiming its idiocy—made her an aggressive contrarian. In fact, her recent canonization notwithstanding, Didion spent most of her career as a magnet for daggers in the letters columns. “Between Joan Didion and me it is still a missed connection,” a reader complained in 1969, responding to a Life column she wrote for a while (abortively, owing to its unpopularity with editors). In The New York Review of Books a decade later: “Evidently where Joan Didion lives problems of love and psyche evaporate in a haze of margaritas by age twenty-one and folks can get down to the real business of living.”
That was in response to a searing broadside against the films of Woody Allen which Didion published in 1979. Allen had recently released “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” reaching his peak of appeal among people likely to read essays by Joan Didion in The New York Review of Books. She objected to the films’ urbane-sounding references (“the false and desperate knowingness of the smartest kid in the class”), and she was annoyed by characters’ superficial-seeming efforts to be deep (“They share sodas, and wonder ‘what love is’ ”). In Didion’s view, Allen’s movies were a simpleminded person’s idea of a smart person’s picture. She was needling her readers, naturally, but the objection also shows a lot about her narrative intelligence and about the way she should be read.
If atomization is one of the key concepts in Didion’s work, another is what she came to call “sentimentality”: belief in a story with a preordained shape and an emotional logic. That kind of storytelling was everywhere in America, she thought. And it was insidious, because it allowed destructive ideas to sneak in underneath the petticoats of right-thinking endeavors. One of the columns in the new collection picks apart a meeting of Gamblers Anonymous. What irked Didion was that although the meeting seemed to be about taking responsibility, it actually refracted blame. “I thought that it was simply the predilection of many of the members to dwell upon how ‘powerless’ they were, how buffeted by forces beyond their control,” she wrote. “There was a great deal of talk about miracles, and Higher Presences, and a Power Greater Than Ourselves”—prefab sentimental stories that let gamblers avoid seeing things squarely. Done well, contrarianism is based on the idea that what matters isn’t which team colors you wear but which goal the ball lands in when you kick it. Didion did it well and, as with the hippies, traced how a moment of supposed healing spun toward delusion and drove people farther apart.
Atomization and sentimentality exacerbate each other, after all: you break the bridges of connection across society, and then give each island a fairy tale about its uniqueness. Didion was interested in how that happens. One of her most frequently read essays is a late-sixties account of loving and leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That.” It tends to be remembered as a half-trite paean to a white-collar New York youth, a kind of classed-up precursor to the “Emily in Paris” Weltanschauung. Yet the essay’s actual point is astringent. New Yorkers’ mythology about their city’s sophistication and specialness, Didion suggested, was another sentimental narrative. She had found her place in town by embracing that view, but outgrew it in time—“at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more,” she wrote. And so she moved to Los Angeles, where the grownups live.
This claim for California as a stronghold of urbanity and groundedness was contrary, even petulant. Didion had grown up in Sacramento and began her reporting from California at a moment when the national narrative of the West Coast—what went on there, what it meant—was shaped by editors and emissaries from New York. (That hasn’t changed.) But, where the Eastern press had decided that California stood for futurism, beaches, lush life, and togetherness, Didion insisted on a California of dusty houses, dry inland landscapes, fires and snakes, and social alienation. Like her contemporary the Bay Area poet Robert Hass, she was obsessed with the motions of mind but shy of abstractions; both realized that what is often called “the world of ideas” is vulnerable to tendentious manipulation. And so they pinned their ideas to details of landscape: this realization fixed to this tree, or the sight of the Bevatron at night, that one to a jasmine-covered porch—the Northern California style of intellection. What this meant was that thinking was an experiential process that emerged in movement from place to place—in the flash cuts—and you didn’t need a sentimental narrative in order to give it sense, as you did in New York.
Didion left the city in 1964, but this remained her perception when she returned twenty-four years later:
This description of “distortion and flattening,” of reducing life to recognizable story lines, is from “New York: Sentimental Journeys,” a study of the Central Park jogger case that Didion wrote, in 1991, for The New York Review of Books. The case—in which a twenty-eight-year-old female banker was brutalized and raped and five youths of color were convicted, and then, decades later, exonerated—became a Rorschach blot, with some people (largely white) seeing a city “systematically ruined, violated, raped by its underclass” and others (largely of color) seeing a city “in which the powerless had been systematically ruined, violated, raped by the powerful.”
Didion saw something else: a city victimized by decades of fatuous thinking and poor planning. New York, she thought, had clung to sentimental narratives about melting pots and special opportunities—“the assurance that the world is knowable, even flat, and New York its center, its motor, its dangerous but vital ‘energy’ ”—to the extent of being blind to the fraying of its civic and economic fibre. In crisis, New Yorkers simply doubled down, appointing heroes or villains in the jogger case, trying to keep the fairy tale aloft. “Sentimental Journeys” was a controversial piece when it appeared, yet it offered a frame for New York’s dramas over the next three decades. Even more important, it insisted on a link between the fate of a society and the way that its stories were told.
What it meant to be a writer—imaginatively and morally—had interested Didion since she spent her teen-age years retyping Hemingway sentences, trying to understand the way they worked. Fifty years later, she wrote about his afterlives in “Last Words,” an essay for this magazine condemning the publication of books that Hemingway had deemed incomplete. To edit a dead author’s near-finished work for publication, Didion thought, was to assume that he or she was playing by the usual rules. But it was precisely not working in this consensus realm that made great artists great.
A common criticism of Didion suggests that the peppering of her prose with proper nouns (the Bendel’s black wool challis dress, the Grès perfume) is somehow unserious. (For whatever reason, these complaints usually come from men.) But the correct way to understand this impulse is in the lineage of front writing. As Adam Gopnik has noted in these pages, it is Hemingway who’s forever telling you which wines to enjoy while fighting in Spain, how to take your brasserie coffee—how to make his particular yours. Didion feminized that way of writing, pushing against the postwar idea that women writers were obliged to be either mini Virginia Woolfs, mincing abstractions from the parlor, or Shulamith Firestones, raging for liberation. Part of what Didion took from Hemingway, by her account, was a mind-set of “romantic individualism,” “looking but not joining,” and a commitment to the details that gave distinctiveness and precision to that outside view. A trip to the Royal Hawaiian in the midst of a rocky marriage, the right soap to pack for a reporting trip while your husband stays with the baby: in Didion’s work, these were as important in their hard details as Hemingway’s crabe mexicaine and Sancerre at Prunier. Hemingway mythologized his authorial life style so well that generations of writers longed to live and work his way. Didion saw what he was doing, and appropriated the technique.
Yet what made the modernists daring was sometimes a weak point of their endeavor: the writing doesn’t always let readers know how it wants to be read. Hemingway’s theory was that if you, the writer, could reduce what you saw in your imagination to the igniting gestures and images—don’t elaborate why you feel sad about your marriage ending; just nail the image of the burning farmhouse that launched you on that train of thought—then you could get readers’ minds to make the same turns at the same intersections, and convey the world more immersively than through exposition. He explained his theory rarely and badly (hence the endless rancid chestnuts about lean prose, laconic dialogue, and crossing important things out), but Didion didn’t miss the point. “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges. . . . The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture,” she noted, in “Why I Write.” And yet she added in signposts Hemingway left out. A first-rate Didion piece explains its terms as it goes, as if the manual were part of the main text. She is perpetually on guard about saying stuff either not clearly enough (the title “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” emerges from her work) or so clearly as to be subject to “distortion and flattening,” and thus untrue to what she means.
“I wanted not a window on the world but the world itself. I wanted everything in the picture” is how she puts it in “Telling Stories,” an essay from 1978 included in the new collection. She is explaining why she lost, or maybe never had, a desire to write salable short stories—tightly constructed pieces hung on a “little epiphany.” For her, the key to capturing life on the page without the usual sort of reduction, she says in the same essay, was figuring out how to use the first person across time.
Didion’s “I” ended up nearly as known as Hemingway’s “and,” and carries the same mixed blessing of being caricatured more than characterized. The caricature has Didion as a histrionic oversharer—a kind of literary Tori Spelling. Yet her reasons for embracing the “I” were mostly technical. You had to let readers know who you were and where your camera stood, she thought. It meant that Didion was always in her own crosshairs, and eventually turned the contrarian impulse on herself.
One of the commonest motifs in Didion’s writing is, bizarrely, Oregon Trail-type survivalism. She had been taught that those who colonized California were “the adventurous, the restless, and the daring.” She had been raised to believe that, as her mother put it, California was now “too regulated, too taxed, too expensive.” In “Where I Was From” (2003), she finally put this origin story of heroic, contrary individualism under the glass.
Didion built the book in her usual way, setting down reported articles and weaving in flashes of personal context. What created California economically and politically, she showed, was actually constant support from the East-reaching web of American society, industry, and, especially, the federal government. “The sheer geographical isolation of different parts of the state tended to obscure the elementary fact of its interrelatedness,” she wrote. The refusal to acknowledge this public interrelatedness, to insist on the determining value of the personal, the private, and the exceptional, had been California’s fragmenting delusion, and her own. I suspect that “Where I Was From” is among the least read of Didion’s nonfiction books, which is unfortunate, because it’s her “Gatsby”: the book in which she scrutinized her most basic ideas of heroic particularism and found that she had not escaped “the blinkering effect of the local dreamtime.” That’s a moving thing for a writer to acknowledge, and a hard one. The final sentences of the book are Didion’s suggestion that she’s not quite ready, in her life, to give the sentimental story up.
The intense burst of mythologizing that attended Didion’s books about the deaths of her husband (“The Year of Magical Thinking”) and her daughter (“Blue Nights,” from 2011) arrived, then, with a certain weirdness. One can now order something called a “Didion dress,” modelled on her late-sixties wardrobe. Not long ago, in a bookshop, I came across a Picador Modern Classics edition of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” shrunk down to pocket size, presumably to be carried in the way that certain people carry miniature versions of the Bible or the Constitution. I tried and failed to think of a writer who’d treat such a thing more mercilessly than the author of that book.
An artist who has spent years doing the work on her own terms should not look fashionability in the mouth. But it is odd to find Didion embraced by the world of mainstream sentimental thinking which she charged against for decades. One wonders whether the fans for whom she’s now an Instagram totem, or the many journalists who claim her, realize that she cast her career toward challenging precepts and paragons like theirs.
It matters only because everything matters. Didion once wrote, “Style is character,” and, because the phrase has seemed to apply to her life and work, it often gets quoted to mean that character comes down to nothing more than style. But the line, which appears in an essay about Georgia O’Keeffe, is actually about the burden of creative choice. “Every choice one made alone—every word chosen or rejected, every brush stroke laid or not laid down—betrayed one’s character,” Didion wrote. Reducing the world, as on the canvas or the page, is a process of foreclosing on its fullness, choosing this way and not that one, and how you make those choices reveals everything about the person that you are. Didion praised O’Keeffe for “hardness” in trying to render in art what sensible people told her was unrenderable. “ ‘The men’ believed it was impossible to paint New York, so Georgia O’Keeffe painted New York,” she wrote. She was impressed by O’Keeffe’s snubbing of those who received her work devotedly but unseriously: “This is a woman who in 1939 could advise her admirers that they were missing her point, that their appreciation of her famous flowers was merely sentimental.” And she lauded O’Keeffe’s frank engagement with her time. “She is simply hard, a straight shooter, a woman clean of received wisdom and open to what she sees,” Didion wrote, and she meant it, too. ♦