Joan Didion: The Female Writer For Men Who Don't Want To Feel Like Pussies

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Most psuedo-intellectual college age girls who fancy themselves writers will, at some point, worship at the altar of Didion (or maybe that was just me and all my poseur friends!). [No, it wasn't just you. -Ed.] Anyway, in today's Washington Post, resident book critic Jonathan Yardley discusses his "on-and-off love affair" with the inscrutable Ms. Didion as part of a recurring column (similar to our own Fine Lines), wherein he "reconsiders notable books from the past." Yardley goes over what is perhaps Didion's most famous work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which he describes as "smart, witty, iconoclastic and deeply informed." All those adjectives are certainly appropriate, but to me, the real marker of Didion's writing is what Yardley calls her "cool"-ness, but what I would call her glacial emotional distance.


For those who have never read it (or have forgotten it), the title essay of Slouching is about the flower children who live in the Haight during 1967's Summer of Love and Yardley says that Didion "she treats these people with the sympathy they deserve, but not a teaspoon more."

Yardley quotes at length from the Didion essay about Joan Baez called "Where The Kissing Never Stops":

Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who 'feels' things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley.

Here, Didion is brutally mocking Baez's perceived earnestness and her palpable emotional responses, and this, in a nutshell, is my problem with the whole Didion lionization. I have the sneaking suspicion that the literary establishment loves her because she's a woman who keeps her feelings close to the vest: She's not messy or weepy or maternal or particularly sympathetic — which is to say, she is not stereotypically "feminine" — and so men can read her without feeling like pussies. Which is not to say that Didion doesn't deserve all the accolades she's received. She just tends to write about "manly" things — California's infrastructure; wildfires; John Wayne — in, well, a way even a man can enjoy.

n a Time of Posturing, Didion Dared 'Slouching' [Washington Post]

Related: Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Jenna Sauers

@stoprobbers: Really? I've always found Didion to be an extremely outwardly directed author. "The White Album" and The Year of Magical Thinking are probably the only works that depart from that in any significant way. Even her memoir is mostly about Californian history. She writes as much about Jack London and Indian captivity narratives as she does about her life. And it's fascinating.

Most of the essays in Slouching, The White Album, After Henry, and Political Fictions originated as pieces she wrote for various national magazines - mainstream publications like Life and the Saturday Evening Post. Neither is known for publishing self-obsessed articles. I think the vast majority of her nonfiction relies very little on Joan Didion the personality to move the narrative forward or create interest in the events related. She has a narrative voice, and a persona which is present in her work, but it's a very quiet one indeed.