Why you should care
Because any writer who inspires this much devotion deserves your attention.
Writers are always selling someone out.
Joan Didion wrote this in the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, her seminal collection of essays exploring the dark chaos of 1960s California. Didion, undeniably one of America’s most influential living writers, was speaking of a writer’s unforgiving habit of sucking up life to recycle into material. But Didion is celebrated precisely because she never sells out her most important constituent: the reader.
Her prose is spare and unsentimental, cutting to the ruthless heart of things. She is the clear-eyed journalist who never gives us more than what’s necessary, who dips into personal waters only long enough to offer a glimpse of the profound deepness. She is the essayist who reveals to us our own misgivings about the culture. (Yet, asked to comment on the “state of the American dream,” she gives the only true response: “I don’t know. I hardly ever think about it. I don’t really think in those abstract terms.”) She is the wife and mother who described the sudden loss of her husband and daughter in two astonishing memoirs that teach us how to remember and, crucially, how to let go of the ones we love most.
Finally, she is the writer whose devotion to the craft of writing itself brings vitality and honesty to the page, one simple and true sentence after another. Or as Didion describes it, she’s a “person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.”
For all of these reasons, Didion, who turned 80 in December, remains as relevant as ever. The more recent memoirs — The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights — have vaulted her back into the mainstream, if she ever left. She is the subject of a forthcoming documentary directed by her nephew, the actor Griffin Dunne, and documentarian Susanne Rostock. The film, aptly called We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, raised $80,000 on Kickstarter in a single day.
How timelessly cool is Didion? She was just made the newest face of luxury fashion brand Céline.
Didion’s early essays — Slouching Towards Bethlehem,The White Album, Political Fictions, among others — secured her place in the American literary canon. Samuel Cohen, an associate professor of English literature at the University of Missouri and editor of The New American Canon, a series of critical books on contemporary culture and literature by the University of Iowa Press, says Didion will not only remain important but will continue to appeal to readers.
Didion demonstrated “that it’s possible to be intimately personal without navel-gazing,” Cohen tells OZY, “to be political without being preachy, to be stylish without being showy. She took the opportunity presented by the New Journalism to jettison the myth of objectivity, but didn’t give up on digging for the truth how she saw it, and felt it.”
Where others may have been tempted by stylistic flair and the political opinion of the day, Didion never strays from her own moral core. She never goes over the line. She never sells out, so that we may see ourselves more clearly, as in this passage from her book about the death of her daughter.