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. ♦