Books + Comics

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Joan Didion

I wanted to be her.

“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.” —Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”

I don’t remember exactly when I came to be reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or what took me so long to pull it off the shelf, but I do remember my exact point of revelation. I was living in a shitmazing, wholly unlegal loft, and I took the book out to the fire escape on a very sunny summer day and lay there with the iron bars pressing into my back. Despite my discomfort I stayed there the entire day, shocked and excited and enthralled by what I was reading, and how it made me feel about reading and writing. Each page made me feel ravenous for the next. The next day I went to the bookstore and bought all the rest of Didion’s books that they had—fiction and non—and sat on the floor of the store reading them for hours because I didn’t want to have to wait until I got home.

Joan Didion’s essays—about the heavy vibes and dismal glamour of Los Angeles, her life as a shy writer with social anxieties, the faltering morals of America as it existed in the late ’60s and the ’70s—felt like breathing new air. Her stories, reported and dreamed up, are so incisive and personal, the little details telling the entire story—it felt like the sort of writing I had always wanted to read but didn’t know existed. Didion writes journalistically, but she doesn’t take herself or opinions out of her work. There is history and culture, and she tangles up with it. Her writing is like normal life—she is not separate and unaffected.

“That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it.” —from Goodbye to All That

She can be stunningly sharp, almost cruel—but often more because of what she doesn’t say than what she does. She could get away with reporting certain scenes and certain stories because, as she has said, she was small and quiet and a woman, so no one assumed she was up to very much.

Joan Didion spent most of her childhood in California. When she was in college, she won an essay contest, and the prize was an internship at Vogue. That turned into an editorial job that she held for seven years. While she was there, she wrote her first book of fiction, Run River, which ties together all the elements that would pervade her early work: the particulars of place in California, privilege, death, anxiety—and women undone by all those factors, including, at times, herself. She wrote about almost getting a divorce, having a nervous breakdown, taking limos, watching the Doors record, being haunted after reporting on these hippies that were giving their toddler drugs.

“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.” —from Slouching Towards Bethlehem

She seemed to be living a comfortable life, but she seemed uncomfortable and lost in it; nevertheless, reading her books, I wanted to be her. The idea of being emotionally, psychically unmoored in that 1970s version of Los Angeles, chain-smoking and pecking out desperate essays on a typewriter, breaking in the evening to review the day’s pages with a similarly obsessive writer husband—well, it seemed like a pretty dreamy life. I think what I really wanted was the part about being a celebrated writer with a partner who understood and nurtured my talent. I wanted to be pictured on the back of my own books, looking coolly into the middle distance in my author’s photo, like her.

Before I encountered Joan Didion, I only ever envied the talents of tortured male writers, since that was the canon I was had been presented with, and at 22, I could at least identify with that tortured part. My young-years triumvirate was Tosches, Bangs, and Ginsberg, and I wanted nothing more than to be able to tear the world apart the way they did. Reading them made the world dissolve, but it also made me feel envious of their talents, their ability to articulate their deep lust for life. But those men—authors, poets, essayist, critics—lost me with their angry libidos, boyish neuroses, and forever-drunken hazes, and most of all with the ways they misunderstood women.

Didion made new sense—perfect sense—to me. How she lost and found herself in the world with her writing, and felt deeply the casual dread of her times. To be a young woman falling apart a little (or a lot) and finding a literary tradition about that place, written by a woman who could describe what it truly feels like to have lost the controls with taut, flawless sentences—it felt like the world had opened up to me. After being lost for years in a wilderness of contemporary literature that was basically “genius” dudes’ dumb thoughts on women, their drug-driven obsessions, and/or the world as it related to their boner, to find a woman who wrote so powerfully, in a way that resonated with my perception and experiences of the world—Didion was the truth. She still is. ♦

20 Comments

  • Eryn June 19th, 2012 7:32 PM

    Definitely going to the library ASAP to look for her books.

    • SpencerBowie June 20th, 2012 1:11 AM

      Same here yo!

      Isn’t it great when you find someone who gets you, or you get! Could be a writer or musician or artist, it’s just great to love others work!

      On my way to tha Library! :)

  • katrinaexplainsitall June 19th, 2012 10:35 PM

    I’ve never even heard of her (like a lot of things featured on rookie actually) but her work seems interesting! I think I’ll check out Slouching Towards Bethlehem soon :3

    http://www.katrinaspice.blogspot.com

  • sweeteelou June 19th, 2012 10:52 PM

    She was mentioned in one of my Summer Reading books, so I kind of dismissed her by default, you know? Now I’m totally interested.
    Love, Evan
    sweeteelou

  • erin June 19th, 2012 11:31 PM

    reading her! thank you, she sounds amazing.

  • Chimdi June 19th, 2012 11:35 PM

    I really should start reading her! I totally relate to you with the “dude genius” thing. I can never finish On The Road because Kerouac frustrates me with his misogynistic, shallow portrayal of women.

  • Catelyn B. June 20th, 2012 2:18 AM

    Read any Jack Kerouac? I am IN LOVE with that dude. :)

  • Susann June 20th, 2012 2:21 AM

    Never heard of her, but her work sounds really interesting!

    Fashion in Pepperland

  • MsryChick June 20th, 2012 3:18 AM

    Hi Jessica! What do you recommend as a good beginning book for those of us who have never read any Joan Didion?

    • airplanes.books June 20th, 2012 7:15 PM

      read ‘slouching towards bethlehem’ which is a collection of essays, or ‘play it as it lays’ which is more memoirish mixed with fiction

  • bohemianlady_ June 20th, 2012 4:50 AM

    I’ve just discovered that some of her books have been translated in Italian, too ~ I’m going to a library as soon as possible! I was looking for great books, thanks Rookie. <3

  • Lillypod June 20th, 2012 6:07 AM

    i love her

  • msjesshopp June 20th, 2012 10:40 AM

    Joan Didion’s two earliest essay collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are her best work, the big classics. For fiction, Play It As It Lays is pretty fantastic, it’s about an actress having a break down and she spends her days driving around LA and the story unfolds in a really unexpected way. Her later stuff is a little hit or miss for me, as far as her fiction. Salvador is a good little novella, Where I was From is about her family history, identity and California history, The Year of Magical Thinking is her account of losing her husband and daughter in the same year and it won the National Book Award about 6-7 years ago and it is just a CRYFEST, but of her later work it’s really solid.

  • Anna F. June 20th, 2012 11:56 AM

    Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are two books that mean the world to me…and yet I’ve never read any of Didion’s fiction! What is wrong with me? Must rectify this asap.

    Wonderful post, Jessica. You really captured her magic.

  • Kristen June 20th, 2012 12:50 PM

    I’ve read a few essays here and there, as well as Magical Thinking. I totally get what you mean by wanting to BE her. She’s amazing, and her name has so much punch!

    I enjoyed everything about this article, it was so well written and interesting and now I want to read more Didion too.

    Write more for us!

  • caro nation June 20th, 2012 1:52 PM

    I have The White Album in my lap right now, actually. Does anyone else hold books in their lap while web surfing?

    I’m relieved that you’ve acknowledged the fact that most impertinent and cerebral writers from the 50′s and 60′s are men. I could only take so much Hunter S. Thompson and Thomas Pynchon after a while.

    Also, Jessica, I admire you. I follow your journalism and I definitely want have a career reminiscent of yours. My mom thinks music journalism is a lost cause, but I want to pursue something that validates my love of writing and my ever-expanding music and film collection. So I think you’re pretty cool, like Joan.

    • caro nation June 20th, 2012 1:57 PM

      Ok, part of that came out wrong, I’m glad you’ve acknowledged that at some point all those impertinent and cerebral male writers start to become dull and repetitive, not the fact that there are tons of them.

      Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates compensate for it, I think.

  • ometembe June 21st, 2012 8:05 AM

    Thank you for this

  • Eliza June 22nd, 2012 10:04 AM

    LOVED the second last sentence.

  • So So Sarah September 25th, 2012 8:32 AM

    I love this write-up! So thoughtful and beautiful. It really makes me want to read Joan Didion’s books now. She’s always been one of those many names on my “to-read” list. Thank you for moving her to the top! x