I know there's an ILE thread on her already, but I had one of my favorite ILX conversations ever about her on ILB, on one of those rolling what are you reading this month threads. It was in part about evaluating her detachment. I'm going to quote it all, which may take several posts:
In September, I finished
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
The White Album
Joan Didion disappoints me - because she seems to offer so much, and is acclaimed in such encouraging quarters. I have read more of her than I have of most writers. But all four volumes I've finished haven't altogether convinced. Leaving aside the fiction, these two essay collections both strike me as immature, brittle, underachieved to a surprising degree. I like them too, in a way, like them a lot. But maybe I like the idea of them and of her, more than I like the actuality of what she has to say. She can be such a reactionary: never mind her essay on feminism, and her enduring fascination with military graveyards, the piece on LA traffic management seems to me just a slice of right-wing anti-statist satire. Maybe the title essay 'StB' is better; I read it with Dylan Live 1966 and a bottle of red wine, which went down pretty well. But even here, I think I was troubled by her relation to the people she wrote about. She wants to appear so wise, and for others to appear so foolish, as they bob amid her cool simple sentences. But after a while this technique doesn't seem so wise - it seems evasive, egotistical, snide. I am trying to think of pieces I liked. 'On The Morning After the Sixties' - in theory; but even that is rather reactionary. 'The White Album' itself: maybe that's as good as she gets? And the last piece in StB, on NYC - that moved me some.
She has been fortunate in her admirers.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Thursday, 9 November 2006 14:18 (11 months ago) Link
That is pretty much my own response to Didion. When I first started to read her, I thought I had discovered a writer I was going to really love. She seemed to have all the talents needed for a great essayist -- perceptiveness, elegance of style, clarity of exposition. But doubts started to creep in early -- as you say, the fundamental problem is her relation to the people she writes about: unless they qualify as part of a narrowly defined group of "people who matter", she treats them with a kind of patrician contempt, or with the cold detachment of a zoological observer who has identified specimens whose bizarre behaviour may have something of interest to tell us about our own species.
-- frankiemachine (frankiemachine), Sunday, 12 November 2006 16:48 (11 months ago) Link
"the cold detachment of a zoological observer who has identified specimens whose bizarre behaviour may have something of interest to tell us about our own species."
this is appealing! but i'm not entirely sure it's fitting.
didion's detachment is maybe a result of attempting to write her depression, not eliminate it from the written account of her experiences. whether that's right or not i dunno. her isolation is troubling but sorta compelling. her isolation from haight-ashbury kids, the suggestion that there is no 'movement', is convincing to me. but then her isolation from/dismissal of the feminist movement i find slightly repugnant, hard to process.
i'm not entirely sure who those people-who-matter are meant to be, seeing as how they don't seem to include any of the artistic figures or politicians she's written about. (that i've read her writing about.)
(maybe i think i'd prefer your metaphor if you worked aliens into it. she sometimes seems to be looking upon the human species like a zoological observer from mars.)
-- tom west (thomp), Sunday, 12 November 2006 17:00 (11 months ago) Link
She wants to appear so wise, and for others to appear so foolish, as they bob amid her cool simple sentences.
This is not how I read her. i think she's hyper-aware of the "problem" of a journalist's detachment from her subjects and she's really worried about the condescension inherent in romanticizing them (compare her to Capote on this, for example). She often strikes me as really sympathetic to those she writes about, especially when they're women, for example in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" (I love that essay) and the one about Joan Baez. But it's an intellectualized, detached sympathy for sure: I think that that's in part a function of her personality (she's often talked about her shyness and how hard calling up people for interviews is for her) and in part an ethical decision. again, compare "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" to In Cold Blood on this.
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Sunday, 12 November 2006 19:06 (11 months ago) Link
her isolation is troubling but sorta compelling
well, because it's honest!! right?
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Sunday, 12 November 2006 19:08 (11 months ago) Link
i like hyper-aware of the problems as a reading of the thing a whole lot, actually.
-- tom west (thomp), Sunday, 12 November 2006 19:40 (11 months ago) Link
I don't want to get into attacking Didion for the sake of it - for as I say, I have put a lot of time into reading her and at one level, I seem to like her quite a lot. Yet - this discussion stimulates.
The claim that her style of presenting other people might be caused by shyness or depression / mental problems seems to me probably true - mainly because she virtually says as much early in both collections/ But the fact that we might be able to *explain* the style doesn't *justify* it, does it? If reader A says 'I don't like William Burroughs' incoherent, babbling writing', and reader B says: 'you have to understand that this is because he took lots of drugs' - then reader B is correct, but the claim doesn't necessarily make Burroughs any better.
I agree that it's hard to say who does 'matter' in her world, except perhaps soldiers.
re. her relation to the 1960s counter-culture: I don't think she says 'there was no movement' - if anything she says it's more political and more dangerous than the media understand? But she does make it seem ... weak, foolish, immature, half-baked. She seems sceptical about it. I don't think there's anything wrong with that: I think it must be an important truth about that culture - and perhaps her judgement thus endures better than more excitable ones.
BUT - she also writes about the period in apocalyptic terms. Here's the first paragraph of that essay:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.
And there's more of this in the intro the book, I think; so, she is prone to sensationalism herself?
Horseshoe says that JD is 'ethical' compared to Capote because he romanticizes violent criminals and she remains detached. In that kind of case, this surely makes sense. But -- not all of the people she writes about are violent criminals! There's no need to remain so detached from them - and there must be a middle ground between romanticization and the way she deals with them, which too often seems contemptuous to me.
And she *does* romanticize John Wayne (and co? I think) - in an essay which might have seemed original and distinctive before David Thomson wrote, but now seems somewhat second-hand and limited.
I don't think we should get fixated on this particular problem with Didion, when I think there are others. But I guess a lot of it does come to down to a) banality; a failure to tell us anything really incisive or thought-provoking: as though 'blank' reportage is always enough; b) a sense of superiority, a much too frequent implicit sneer; c) the reactionary attitudes mentioned above. In truth, I still think Amis on Didion is a more compelling piece than any piece I've read by Didion. Gosh, do I really think that? I fear that I do.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Monday, 13 November 2006 13:19 (11 months ago) Link
well yeah i have the same problems with didion - but doubt you're right about amis, but eh (i mean, 'implicit sneer' is surely his default tone) - but i think the best pieces are where her detachment seems to interact with the subject matter in interesting ways - like, when WSB writes about societal mechanisms of control in his uh fragmented style, that works for me. when he writes about cats, it doesn't.
-- tom west (thomp), Monday, 13 November 2006 14:42 (11 months ago) Link
NB, re. Amis: I'm not defending Amis tout court! I'm just saying his one piece on Didion is very good; it stands up to a remarkable number of readings. And maybe it is, ironically, an analysis of and verdict on aspects of Amis too.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Monday, 13 November 2006 14:52 (11 months ago) Link
Fair enough: she does romanticize Wayne, but she doesn't really have a choice; he sort of comes pre-romanticized for her and for her readers, which is pretty much what that essay's about. I've never read Thomson, though, so I can't speak to that essay being derivative. I find it insightful.
I wasn't trying to suggest that Didion isn't romantic in some larger sense; it's completely true that the passage you quoted is apocalyptic-sounding, as is a lot of StB. I don't find that "sensationalistic" (I'm sure they felt like pretty apocalyptic times!) and I don't think it changes the fact that she is committed to registering the isolation of the reporter vis-a-vis the subject. To me, this keeps the people she writes about real and protects them somehow.
I can't help feeling that you and I are characterizing her writing in an entirely opposite way, Pinefox, so maybe there's nothing more to say. I will admit that the new journalism of that period makes me really uncomfortable, even when it's written beautifully, as Capote's work usually is, and I view Didion as an antidote because she's so scrupulous. And she writes beautifully.
I'm really glad this came up; it's making me want to reread her. Maybe I'll have more to say once I do.
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Monday, 13 November 2006 17:17 (11 months ago) Link
In case I haven't made it clear: the particular quality of Didion's detachment that I admire is her refusal of the novelistic gesture of "getting inside people's heads." Is this what makes her seem sneering to you, Pinefox?
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Monday, 13 November 2006 17:20 (11 months ago) Link
also, in StB, her larger project is to paint her culture broadly. maybe the sense some of you get that nobody matters to her is a result of her use of individuals as illustrations of some cultural happening? Rather than as just individuals? that's a fair critique, but it doesn't really bother me.
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Monday, 13 November 2006 17:24 (11 months ago) Link
I'd be very interested in reading Amis's essay (although as a general rule I find Amis much more irritating than I find Didion). Barbara Grizzutti Harrison's essay on Didion is the negative one I tend to think of - vicious, but largely convincing.
-- frankiemachine (frankiemachine), Monday, 13 November 2006 18:43 (11 months ago) Link
wow. that is some mean shit.
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Monday, 13 November 2006 19:47 (11 months ago) Link
and I think her reading of "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" is entirely unconvincing.
I really don't get the "cold, cold heart" school of criticism. (I heard a professor once complain about Jane Austen for similar reasons. which seems to be entirely missing the point.) does it get applied to male writers, too?
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Monday, 13 November 2006 19:53 (11 months ago) Link
Aren't those Didion articles for the Saturday Evening Post or something? I think they're bluddy brilliant. I always think about her when I am in shopping centre car parks.
-- PJ Miller (PJ Miller 68), Tuesday, 14 November 2006 09:08 (11 months ago) Link
― horseshoe, Monday, 5 November 2007 18:36 (fifteen years ago) link
Horseshoe: I agree that Didion seems scrupulous - esp. compared to some clearly over-self-obsessed people. But I'm not sure she *is* that scrupulous. The point about getting into people's heads - well, interesting. Yes, in a way the externality probably contributes to the sense of disdain. But that tactic is defensible. The real problem, maybe, is a bit different: her way of delivering sour pay-offs and implicit put-downs, and of setting people up. I don't think she does just report neutrally and accurately - which is the impression the prose gives at one level. I think she arranges things so that other people seem foolish; and as I said earlier, after a while this doesn't seem so impressive on her part.
Distant but at least topical comparison: Borat - taking c.2 hours of footage and showing 30 seconds to make passer-by / real person look sillier than they really did.
I was not saying that Didion was derivative of Thomson - he comes after her and reveres her. Just that once you've read him, her take on movies doesn't seem so great. Though I don't mean 'In Hollywood', which is kind of interesting - though also sneering and nasty.
Once again: I quite agree that Amis *in general* is annoying - the point is about this particular essay, and the valid or at least interesting things he has to say in it.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Tuesday, 14 November 2006 15:41 (11 months ago) Link
That essay on her IS nasty! But nice (for thread purposes) the way it connects her with Salinger, in the first para!
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Tuesday, 14 November 2006 15:45 (11 months ago) Link
Actually, can someone write that Didion-as-Borat sketch? I see great comic possibility, but not the time to do it. I'll expect it on this thread by c.9 tomorrow morning.
PS / I have to countenance the possibility that LATE Didion - much admired, Indian summer, crowning moments of career etc - might be better than early.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Tuesday, 14 November 2006 16:15 (11 months ago) Link
it does seem that you might like late didion better, pinefox!
-- horseshoe (horseshoe), Tuesday, 14 November 2006 16:47 (11 months ago) Link
I not like "Magic Think Year" so much like "Bethelehem Slouch" or "White Book".
-- PJ Miller (PJ Miller 68), Wednesday, 15 November 2006 14:03 (11 months ago) Link
how are people with 'political fictions' and 'miami' and the sept 11th pamphlet?
-- tom west (thomp), Wednesday, 15 November 2006 17:01 (11 months ago) Link
I started reading the 9/11 pamphlet at Accentmonkey's house, and my response was infuriation at its unbelievable political naivete. (As in: 'a few weeks after 9/11, I started to feel disturbed.... Something about the atmosphere of feverish patriotism just wasn't quite right.... I wondered if there were things the government wasn't telling us....') It might have been faux-naivete, but that didn't seem to work too well either.
Thomson adores Democracy.
I have Where I Was From on a shelf at home. I have heard good things about it, which may be better than reading it. I have found it difficult to bring myself to read about Didion's ancestors. I like the cover, though. It is nicely designed and she looks good on it.
-- the pinefox (the pinefox), Wednesday, 15 November 2006 17:23 (11 months ago) Link
It is nicely designed and she looks good on it.
This is her appeal in a nutshell.
-- PJ Miller (PJ Miller 68), Wednesday, 15 November 2006 17:48 (11 months ago) Link
You are being too sarcastic, PJ. Whether you (or I) derive much pleasure or insight from Ms. Didion, no one can make a long writing career by connecting to readers only through their book designs and author's mug shots. Someone is reading her with real appreciation. You can argue that it is misplaced, but not that it doesn't exist.
-- Aimless (Aimless), Wednesday, 15 November 2006 18:31 (11 months ago) Link
― horseshoe, Monday, 5 November 2007 18:38 (fifteen years ago) link
I know that was self-indulgent of me, but partly I want to lure the pinefox back, because I love Didion, but his criticisms of her were good and provocative. Anyway, I don't expect people to necessarily respond to or even read all of that, but I thought it would be nice to have an ILB Didion thread.
― horseshoe, Monday, 5 November 2007 18:40 (fifteen years ago) link
We do miss Mr. P. Fox.
― Casuistry, Monday, 5 November 2007 21:04 (fifteen years ago) link
He was a fine pox, that pinefox.
I can't believe I was so hard on poor old Joan.
― the pinefox, Wednesday, 7 November 2007 13:05 (fifteen years ago) link
My fundamental reaction to the thought of her, to the sight of her books, to her name in the press, is, always, positive - as in fact I repeatedly say above. It's just that the books themselves didn't quite seem to measure up to that. But as I also repeatedly say (do I ever do anything but repeat my own repetitions?), she has been fortunate in her admirers.
― the pinefox, Wednesday, 7 November 2007 13:08 (fifteen years ago) link
― horseshoe, Friday, 9 November 2007 01:54 (fifteen years ago) link
i thought Play it as it lays was rather good, but i've not read any of her other novels
― swinburningforyou, Friday, 16 November 2007 20:00 (fifteen years ago) link
i have zero interest in her fiction but everything else is great. agree with the pinefox that her bit on the diamond lanes is one of the few places where her slip shows. disagree with the pinefox on "The Women's Movement." boo hoo hoo it's "reactionary" -- it's also quite OTM in some uncomfortable ways.
the barbara grizzuti harrison piece might seem more "mean" if it weren't so just simply obtuse. hate to speak ill of the dead but jeez, sorry JD doesn't write about class the way you want her to but IT'S PRACTICALLY ALL SHE WRITES ABOUT so wtf do you want from her?
also goddamn right she uses style as argument. this is not a revelation THIS IS THE GODDAMN POINT.
anyhoo, possibly Our Finest Living Writer imo so.
― all yoga attacks are fire based (rogermexico.), Saturday, 19 June 2010 23:34 (twelve years ago) link
Her disinterest in literature is a problem, but as a journalist she's about the best we have.
― Filmmaker, Author, Radio Host Stephen Baldwin (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 20 June 2010 00:28 (twelve years ago) link
lol i love how i started this thread basically to stalk the pinefox. where u been, man?
― horseshoe, Sunday, 20 June 2010 02:00 (twelve years ago) link
Our Finest Living Writer
finest novelist too, she is without peer
― get your bucket of free wings (underrated aerosmith albums I have loved), Sunday, 20 June 2010 02:02 (twelve years ago) link
You are allowed to say that, because she is a very good writer with an excellent prose style. Luckily, you are not allowed to be entirely right. Such matters are never decided, even a century after the fact.
― Aimless, Sunday, 20 June 2010 18:38 (twelve years ago) link
srsly though can anyone explain to me what's "convincing" about the BGH piece other than the deliberate misreading/professional jealousy aspect?
― all yoga attacks are fire based (rogermexico.), Sunday, 20 June 2010 20:37 (twelve years ago) link
this is apropos of nothing but something else on ilx just reminded me of it. i remember, a couple of years after reading the white album, remembering the essay about aspiring starlet dallas beardsley, who had an appetite for stardom at the time of didion's piece, was poised to break into hollywood any way she could. with the benefit of thirty five years having elapsed between writing and reading, i was able to look her up and see whether she made it in the movies: imdb. it seems like a kinda poetic extra supplement to the story.
― FORTIFIED STEAMED VEGETABLE BOWL (schlump), Friday, 1 October 2010 21:38 (twelve years ago) link
'style as argument'? But does Didion have a good style? Yes and no.
― the pinefox, Saturday, 2 October 2010 07:45 (twelve years ago) link
Her style is very controlled and it achieves passion only in moments where it designedly and dispassionately takes control of the passions of the reader. This is an interesting trick that she does rather well, although you needs must be susceptible to her approach for it to work as she intends.
As for whether this is "good style" I would say yes, but, for me, good style is any style that embodies the intentions of the author and connects with the intended audience. For example, Dr. Suess has an excellent style. What would be a good style for a non-fiction author is almost certain to be an ill-style for a gothic-horror author.
― Aimless, Saturday, 2 October 2010 16:50 (twelve years ago) link
she has a new memoir coming out next year - blue magic, i think, about aging (will just defer to the blurb on the back to see how a didion book spells ageing) - and an article about it linked to goodbye to all that from slouching toward bethlehem, which i haven't read for ages. i am not a writer so this isn't from the position of being envious of her craft, but man, reading her is just such a rich experience; she triggers the pangs you ordinarily get of wistfulness or regret but without the character of those, squaring some event in the context of her age, of who she was, making whatever you're reading about totally subject to all of these other influences
― inimitable bowel syndrome (schlump), Friday, 12 November 2010 13:32 (twelve years ago) link
oh man great news! I would give almost anything for another novel but I think The Last Thing He Wanted is probably gonna be it for Didion's novels.
― honkin' on joey kramer (underrated aerosmith bootlegs I have owned), Friday, 12 November 2010 13:36 (twelve years ago) link
oh it's blue nights, though - dang - was already pumped for blue magic
― honkin' on joey kramer (underrated aerosmith bootlegs I have owned), Friday, 12 November 2010 13:41 (twelve years ago) link
― Miss Garrote (Eric H.), Friday, 12 November 2010 13:43 (twelve years ago) link
joan didion takes on miles' blue moods. my mistake.
the last thing i heard - which might've been c/o the site linked above - was that she was writing notes or something for a hbo biopic on katherine graham. which i'd love to see. but yeah pretty jazzed. i think she probably has a fair amount of newish uncollected writing sitting around, also - i saw her read prepared remarks, around the time of the last election, and would love to read her recent stuff.
still haven't read the novels ...
― inimitable bowel syndrome (schlump), Friday, 12 November 2010 15:01 (twelve years ago) link
oh yeah also worth plugging: that site also links to her paris review interviews, which just became freely available as part of their site re-jig
― inimitable bowel syndrome (schlump), Friday, 12 November 2010 15:03 (twelve years ago) link
yeah they're great (like everything else she's involved with)
― just sayin, Friday, 12 November 2010 15:10 (twelve years ago) link
i started play it as it lays a few years ago and didn't know how iago was, so gave up disheartened on line two. probably ready for a rerun.
― inimitable bowel syndrome (schlump), Friday, 12 November 2010 15:13 (twelve years ago) link
- didn't know who iago was -
I do like her essay 'goodbye to all that'and Blue Magic or Blue Nights are pretty good titlesmaybe she'd at least be better on ageing than Amis (M)or then again, even, maybe not!
― the pinefox, Saturday, 13 November 2010 00:00 (twelve years ago) link
It's not Didion book related, but I'm loving this:
Didion's takedown of Woody Allen, after he went serious in the 70s.
― Romeo Jones, Thursday, 18 November 2010 00:09 (twelve years ago) link
i love her dearly and am a bit disheartened by the pinefox's indifference! just reread all of slouching towards bethlehem and read play it as it lays in the last month. i keep meaning to start the white album but i almost don't want to run out of vintage didion so quickly so i'm putting it off.
i think there's a lot more emotion in her writing than people assume -- that hatchet job linked to upthread makes no sense at all to me. i've never gotten the sense that didion's laconic style was meant to signify condescension toward her subjects. that essay on self-esteem is one of the most succinct and powerful essays i've ever read.
the only other thing i've read is political fictions, which is great and all but hasn't stuck with me like the earlier stuff (except for the review of newt gingrich's book, so hilarious mean it's almost hard to get through).
― (The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Thursday, 18 November 2010 23:52 (twelve years ago) link
That's ok. He is among the most impenetrable of Shakespeare's characters.
― Aimless, Friday, 19 November 2010 01:43 (twelve years ago) link
― Romeo Jones, Wednesday, November 17, 2010 7:09 PM Bookmark
This is great and unfair at the same time. If it were written by anyone less than Joan Didion it wouldn't work. Yes, Woody Allen films have a certain quality of being stuck in a hyper-precocious adolescence at times, but that's also part of their charm, and I don't buy that she's uncharmed by them. Besides, I think it's a little disingenuous for a professional serious essayist to criticize someone for pondering meaning. I mean most people go to offices every day and do work they don't even like -- they stopped sitting in cafes with notebooks a long time ago.
I get the feeling "I'm too mature for this" has been her posture for a lot of her life -- though it's exactly that posture that makes Slouching Toward Bethlehem so sharp.
― portrait of the artist as a yung joc (Hurting 2), Friday, 19 November 2010 03:51 (twelve years ago) link
Didion's political writing -- Miami, After Henry, Political Fictions -- was immensely influential on me.
― look at it, pwn3d, made u look at my peen/vadge (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 19 November 2010 03:54 (twelve years ago) link
As a novelist, though, she gives the impression that she hasn't read a new one since college.
― look at it, pwn3d, made u look at my peen/vadge (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Friday, 19 November 2010 03:55 (twelve years ago) link
JD, I don't think my feeling is indifference - more repeated disappointment. I think I've written this up so many times over the years, on this board, that I probably shouldn't go over it again. But to recap, I think she's been lucky in her admirers (including, maybe, you!); I think she radiates a kind of glamour and cool; I think she writes about interesting subjects sometimes; she always seems like someone that one would be interested in and want to read.
But I also think, in practice, that her level of actual insight isn't often that high; her prose is unadventurous, a mannerism that stops her needing to try things, find words, take risks; and yes I think 'condescension' / superiority / 'I'm too mature for this' is far too much a default setting in her writing. Also I've read 2-3 novels and they really weren't worth much more than a dime - I couldn't see why she persevered with them.
And yet, I still think of her as a writer that I like.
(I only say all this again cos the admirable JD prompted it)
― the pinefox, Friday, 19 November 2010 11:41 (twelve years ago) link
thinking about the prose again: how many great phrases, striking bundles of words, do you come across in reading Didion? can anyone remember any? I think perhaps she has little lyric sense; there isn't much semantic bounty or verbal music; she's the opposite of a Pynchon (whom I also frequently find exasperating for other reasons); and writing in her sort of plain style has been a way of legitimating this - or has sealed it, encouraged it to happen, put her unseen lyric gift to sleep.
― the pinefox, Friday, 19 November 2010 11:49 (twelve years ago) link
hey team didion: can anyone point me in the direction of a all-of-a-sudden-while-at-my-folks-place-for-the-holidays-very-relevant JD quote i'm looking for? there's something - it coulda been in the last one - that she said about using the best plates, and how everyday is the day you should use the best plates. is this ringing any bells? she may have the edge over me in having phrased this well.
thank you in advance from me and my plate hoarding family
― schlump, Saturday, 25 December 2010 17:21 (eleven years ago) link
Did you ever find that?
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 13:18 (eleven years ago) link
I've been reading her Paris Review interview to celebrate Pancake Day. She says certain things with a very impressive all-American coolness. But she also says things that aren't very impressive.
She says that when she's writing a novel, she starts the day by retyping the whole thing from p.1, or p.20 or so. That makes it seem the more remarkable that her novels don't seem to include any good writing - unless it was all excised by the endless rewriting.
Her interviewer crawlingly says that DH Lawrence 'didn't know anything about women at all'. Didion says: 'No, nothing'.
Now, I don't like Lawrence. In some ways he is among my least favourite writers. But he was a human being in the C20 who was married to a woman and travelled the world with her; who had intense relations with his mother and perhaps other women. He wrote a lot about women (and men). Is it plausible to say of such a person that he 'didn't know anything about women at all'? What kind of discriminate literary judgement is this? You might as well say I don't know anything about books at all, even though I've lived around them all my life.
Of course, the duller truth is that women are different from one another. You can know one woman, and not know another. You can know some things and not others. That was probably the case with DHL.
My contribution for International Women's Pancake Day.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 13:24 (eleven years ago) link
You might as well say I don't know anything about books at all, even though I've lived around them all my life.
maybe you don't!
i don't know; it seems a fairly standard hyperbolic statement. we could translate it as "d.h. lawrence's work takes a great interest in the relations between the sexes, but that interest, which qualified him as a remarkable writer on the subject to his contemporaries, makes him seem all the more egregious on the subject today; and it's fair to say that he seems entirely wrong-headed on the subject of women."
or we could accept the shorthand in its cattiness; it's not really joan didion's job, or anyone's -- unless, say, they're a lawrence scholar, or writing a survey of twentieth-century fiction -- to be immediately responsible to have developed opinions about d.h. lawrence ready and to hand.
― thomp, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 14:06 (eleven years ago) link
well, I think it is true that most of us are ignorant in lots of ways about physical objects and processes (including eg books). This is a condition of which I always feel fairly aware.
But again, there are lots of things to know about books, levels of knowing. There are some things that I know about some books. It wouldn't be plausible to say I don't know anything about any books.
I think your paraphrase is very convincing, and much more sophisticated and interesting than Didion's / interviewer's statement (because you posit a connection between DHL's strong interest and his possible errors) -- until the last clause. I don't know whether we can assume that he seems entirely wrong-headed on this subject. We'd probably need to work a bit to remind ourselves exactly what he did think or say.
Again, I feel a bit doubtful that there is a 'subject of women' - that idea seems like part of the problem. But, maybe DHL did believe in it, and maybe that could be one way that he was wrong.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 14:13 (eleven years ago) link
It wouldn't really have struck me much (these interviews are full of daft put-downs etc) - but she just doesn't come across very well in the interview as a whole. I always feel that Didion thinks she's a much better writer than she is - a strange effect.
But there is a fine sentence or two about sunsets on the West Coast which exemplify her American authority.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 14:19 (eleven years ago) link
that's probably a pretty canny thing to say, and a good point from which to start investigating the subject of 'lawrence and women', if we choose to, if we're in some place to do so.
on the other hand, i don't really see that a passing topic (books didion wrote on as an undergraduate!) in an interview about writing nonfiction is a place where said subject really needs to be investigated: it seems a ridiculous level of precision to demand of anyone, that anything said about anything needs to hew that true to reasonable statement, to accuracy of expression. i'd probably have to give up on ever talking about books again, if that were the case.
barthelme put 'all the paris review interviews' on a list of things his students should study. i feel like they belong on a list of things no one that wants to write should ever, ever read, almost.
― thomp, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 14:23 (eleven years ago) link
Didion is one of my favorite journalists and stylists, but I've long suspected she hasn't read a novel since the sixties.
― Rich Lolwry (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 8 March 2011 14:25 (eleven years ago) link
This is what Didion said that made a bit of an impression on me.
"There's always something missing about late afternoon to me on the East Coast. Late afternoon on the West Coast ends with the sky doing all its brilliant stuff. Here it just gets dark."
A positive thing to do with Didion would be just to quote lines she's written that one thinks are good.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 8 March 2011 16:37 (eleven years ago) link
Great quote. The Year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful place to start. The deep seriousness actually goes with gusts of adventure, even fun, occasionally.Especially when she dreams about swimming with her daughter, or (apparently in the real-life waking world)exasperates a doctor with her self-taught sense of medical author-a-tah (as South Park's Cartman would put it). She's getting out of the house!
― dow, Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:17 (eleven years ago) link
Although gravity (with those gusts) might be a more accurate description than "deep seriousness."
― dow, Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:21 (eleven years ago) link
her novels don't seem to include any good writing
― horseshoe, Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:35 (eleven years ago) link
I think her position is "if I've already got Henry James and Joseph Conrad what do I need with other authors"
― five gone cats from Boston (underrated aerosmith bootlegs I have owned), Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:36 (eleven years ago) link
my gf takes that line. it's kind of infuriating but also kind of impossible to argue with
― thomp, Sunday, 13 March 2011 20:37 (eleven years ago) link
"like, really?“RIP Thomas Hardy its sad that he only wrote about farms”"
Is writing about farms by definition conservative or something?
― xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 5 January 2022 19:50 (ten months ago) link
no i just meant myopically reducing a writers output to one thing
― terminators of endearment (VegemiteGrrl), Wednesday, 5 January 2022 21:28 (ten months ago) link
Lol no. Hardy wrote novels about people in his time. But we are talking about (mostly) Didion's non-fiction.
And Didion's politics otoh could make her non-fiction unreadable if she looks at people the way bustillos says she does. Saying "but her sentences" is a get out clause for fiction some of the time, less so for non-fiction.
I also don't see how Bustillos being a worse stylist (or the platform they got their essay published in lol) invalidates their readings. It's just putting Didion on a pedestal and not dealing with what they say.
― xyzzzz__, Wednesday, 5 January 2022 23:10 (ten months ago) link
I couldn't take Bustillos seriously after, like so many people with hot takes, she omits discussing Salvador, Miami, After Henry, and Political Fictions, all examples of reporting which by its nature observes and -- what most reporters don't do because American j-school practices are still shit -- judges.
She does mention The Year of Magical Thinking because, whaddya know, it's a memoir, hence a sign of her insularity.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 5 January 2022 23:38 (ten months ago) link
I'll repeat: Didion stopped being that Californian diarist in the 1980s. She engaged the world. She criticized the Reagan-Bush year's heinous foreign policy in Central America -- she wrote a book about the El Mozote massacre when the Beltway press was fawning over Reagan's syntactical lapses.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 5 January 2022 23:41 (ten months ago) link
I can accept -- hell, I would accept payment to write -- a critique of her work in its totality, not specious bullshit that stops with The White Album and her fiction.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 5 January 2022 23:42 (ten months ago) link
I guess Bustillos excoriated 1993's “Trouble in Lakewood,” which I haven't read in years, but from what I remember she draws the wrong conclusions.
― So who you gonna call? The martini police (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Wednesday, 5 January 2022 23:45 (ten months ago) link
Brad is otm about Bustillos’s critique of Didion. I’m not saying her politics don’t merit critique, but Bustillos performs a very weird reading of “Trouble in Lakewood.” I also just think Didion is tricky, politically speaking, particularly when she overtly starts covering American electoral politics.
― horseshoe, Thursday, 6 January 2022 01:44 (ten months ago) link
i'm sure there are persuasive critiques of joan didion out there, i'm not an uncritical admirer, but that maria bustillos essay is not good. i mean:
Didion’s work is an unrelenting exercise in class superiority, and it will soon be as unendurable as a minstrel show.
i mean, this is profoundly more offensive than anything i've ever seen joan didion write! and i'm not sure if bustillos meant this to be facetious or not, but wtf at this:
I never even heard of anyone getting as wasted as Didion’s hippies do.
― (The Other) J.D. (J.D.), Thursday, 6 January 2022 03:09 (ten months ago) link
I don't concur with the view that the Joan Didion thread should only be about celebrating Joan Didion because the writer died last month. The thread has been going since 2007, and was initially composed of statements reposted from 2006 -- that is, ILB has been talking about Didion for years and years, and (if anyone can be bothered to go back and read it) 'we' were ambivalent, divided, etc, then, as 'we' are now.
The fact that this thread keeps coming back is, for me, consonant with how I happen to feel about her, namely: however much I sometimes dislike her, am frustrated or disappointed about her, I can never quite put her away and dismiss her. She has an uncanny capacity to stay the course as an item of reflection. In a sense that is my primary experience of Didion - an interest that never goes away.
I think the statement, often repeated, that 'she wrote very good sentences', is overstated. She wrote in a particular way. I am still not convinced that she was much better at writing than most other writers. And there are some other writers who write in more ambitious or flamboyant ways (Nabokov would be the extreme, but even ILB darling Patricia Lockwood would qualify in her own way) whose 'sentences' might be of more interest to consider as such.
I don't really agree with the idea that you buy Didion's 'sentences' and ignore what they say, or the views they express. The sentences, the content, the views, go together. There are probably talented writers in the Spectator (well ... maybe), but I wouldn't buy them. The analogy with music doesn't hold up very well because compared to language, musical is a relatively abstract medium.
I agree with the view that the later Didion (c.1980s, 1990s) is probably politically different from the earlier. I've been saying it over and over!
In the critiques of Didion, I find the idea of 'class status' strangely overplayed - that has never been an issue in her for me, really - and I also think that the idea that she is 'nostalgic for a golden age of better values' is very overstated or not very apt. (Both Harrison and Bustillos seem to emphasise both these ideas; I'm not very convinced by them.) I see little nostalgia in her -- again, an unusually unsentimental writer.
― the pinefox, Thursday, 6 January 2022 12:30 (ten months ago) link
I can't believe I was so hard on poor old Joan.― the pinefox, Wednesday, November 7, 2007
― the pinefox, Wednesday, November 7, 2007
― the pinefox, Thursday, 6 January 2022 12:33 (ten months ago) link
― Max Hamburgers (Eric H.), Thursday, 6 January 2022 14:11 (ten months ago) link
I think she wrote good sentences in that she was unsentimental but evoked sentiment in the reader, in her novels and essays and articles.
― youn, Thursday, 6 January 2022 15:54 (ten months ago) link
more like groan didion
― STOCK FIST-PUMPER BRAD (BradNelson), Thursday, 6 January 2022 16:06 (ten months ago) link
more like joan didifart
― Max Hamburgers (Eric H.), Thursday, 6 January 2022 16:10 (ten months ago) link
the pinefox: Is it possible that you don't recognize the markers of class in CA where money is new and a recent history is tied to land and frontier stories? Not that I know myself but the markers are interesting ...
― youn, Thursday, 6 January 2022 16:30 (ten months ago) link
and she’s explicit about them! anyone who wants to make a performance of like pulling back the curtain to reveal that author of Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album writes from the perspective of “establishment” California and about politics (both left and right) with both privileged fascination and privileged contempt is a priori suspect given that she comes out and says this repeatedly.obv she gets older, sees more, comes to a different kind of understanding about what’s at stake and for whom. we haven’t mentioned Salvador in this context but it’s a moment for sure.
― poster of sparks (rogermexico.), Friday, 7 January 2022 06:22 (ten months ago) link
I think the motives of the seller were being questioned rather than the aptitude of the buyer or the existence of buyers who do not also consider quality and purpose.
― youn, Friday, 7 January 2022 08:00 (ten months ago) link
I agree that music is a relatively abstract medium, but popular music is often written with lyrics intended not to be abstract and that is what is often discussed here. I think good writing can evoke response that is non-literal.
― youn, Friday, 7 January 2022 18:53 (ten months ago) link
re: Didion's famous exchange with the Woody Allen fan, I don't like her response, though I also think the film is bad. My question is: has anyone read her actual review? Could anyone post it here?
― the pinefox, Sunday, 9 January 2022 10:30 (ten months ago) link
OK, the review is herehttps://www.nybooks.com/articles/1979/08/16/letter-from-manhattan/
But much of it is subscriber-only.
From reading the first paras I'm somewhat entertained but not very convinced, as the critique seems rather applicable to Didion herself. Maybe she was, for this reason, the ideal reviewer.
― the pinefox, Sunday, 9 January 2022 10:35 (ten months ago) link
the critique seems rather applicable to Didion herself
I don't know if I agree here! I also only have access to these opening paragraphs, but reading them over her accusations are: cultural accesorising (an interesting one as arguably much of our culture has become this!), infantilism and self-obsession. Out of those three the only sin I could see someone saying Didion has is the last one, but even there the very nature of her work means she is constantly confronted with things that are alien to her and requiring at least some curiosity to analyse, while Allen's world, being fiction, can afford to be more insular.
― Daniel_Rf, Monday, 10 January 2022 16:10 (ten months ago) link
Nedlene Grendel: random guess - they don't want to explain themselves for doing something that cannot be justified to their audience for technical reasons only that point to skills appropriate for contests of dominance
― youn, Monday, 10 January 2022 17:03 (ten months ago) link
Will give this a listen
For your listening pleasure, here's our deep-dive on Joan Didion's conservatism—her Sacramento roots, her early writing for National Review, why she loved Barry Goldwater (and hated Ronald Reagan), and much more. Our guest? The great Sam Tanenhaus. Enjoy!https://t.co/04u8xopsb2— Matthew Sitman (@MatthewSitman) January 13, 2022
― xyzzzz__, Thursday, 13 January 2022 21:46 (ten months ago) link
really enjoyed that
― Nedlene Grendel as Basenji Holmo (map), Thursday, 13 January 2022 23:47 (ten months ago) link
Yes, terrific podcast.
― Piedie Gimbel, Thursday, 13 January 2022 23:59 (ten months ago) link
really excellent discussion, thanks for sharing
― Blues Guitar Solo Heatmap (Free Download) (upper mississippi sh@kedown), Friday, 14 January 2022 01:25 (ten months ago) link
patricia lockwood makes an excellent case for her in the introductory essay to this book, and i think, pretty objectively, joan didion gave great interviews, so it's prob worth buying: https://bookshop.org/books/joan-didion-the-last-interview-and-other-conversations/9781685890117
― flamenco drop (BradNelson), Wednesday, 4 May 2022 16:25 (six months ago) link
Where I Was From is notes from her lifelong trek through legacies of illusion, coming to grips with the Californias of heroic individualism and artificial paradise of water and land politics,the white pioneer destiny, fed to the childhood heads of her generation and so many before, some since: familiar enough in sum, but she fills in the details of her experience and others', from ancestors barely avoiding the fate of the Donner Party, to delusions of some Jack London characters and her own, in River Run, also the real-life citizens of Lakewood, shining suburban island tied to military contracts during the Cold War and after or "after," lots of other people and ties: the rhythmic development of all this is amazing (and "was" from is right, right as she can make it, with no desire to break with the people, places, and things she's loved, though memory is most of that now---prob no illusion of breaking entirely with the other stuff, the mad insidious bullshit, but she seems to be sitting there waiting at the end, having gotten this far.)
― dow, Thursday, 5 May 2022 01:23 (six months ago) link
I finished LET ME TELL YOU WHAT I MEAN: a 2021 collection of essays. Information about the essays is poor: the book should have a simple list indicating the provenance and context of each, but only has a date after each.
The Foreword by Hilton Als (who?) is bad.
The first 6 are short essays from 1968. They may be the best material in the book. They don't outstay a welcome. Didion is at a certain kind of peak here - in the simple sense that she was a "great documenter of 1968 CA", or whatever.
"Why I Write" is a 1976 talk on her writing and imaginative process. "Telling Stories" is a 1978 recollection of writing short stories in the 1950s and 1960s, and notes that has written none since and doesn't feel comfortable with the form.
"Some Women" (1989) starts off about photographic studios and models in general, then turns into an essay about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Possibly this would be explained if we had the context, eg: maybe this was really always presented as an essay about Mapplethorpe.
"The Long-Distance Runner" is about director Tony Richardson. It appears to be the foreword to a posthumous memoir by him. It's quite interesting to learn that Didion and her family were so close to Richardson, who was making films way back before she was known as a writer.
"Last Words" is a longer essay about Ernest Hemingway, on the occasion of the publication of a posthumous work. It contains elements of appreciation and even of "close reading", and may be somewhat significant in clarifying her adherence to, admiration for, Hemingway, in style and narrative outlook. She then spends much time criticising people for publishing writing (including letters) that Hemingway didn't choose to publish.
"Everywoman.com" (2000) is a very of-its-time, late-90s / dot com sort of era, article about Martha Stewart - a very successful businesswoman who I believe has been very popular in the US but has never made such a dent in the awareness of my own country. Didion spends time rather needlessly arguing with others for their complaints about Stewart, as a way to get her own contrary view forward. The view is rather simple: people (women) like Stewart because she is a successful businesswoman and they'd like to be like that. The materials of this essay - lots of corporate-speak - do not make for a good text when transposed into Didion's typically inclusive rendition, ie: one in which she repeats corporate phrases and titles as fully and repetitively as possible, as though to laconic effect.
Didion writes with the plainness, and / or carefulness, that we expect from her. I quickly come to realise, again, that one of her typical effects is to report what people say, within this flat style, and thus make them look silly or vainglorious. I ask myself why this effect is achieved and I think: well, it's a bit like letting them speak, then, rather than responding, applauding or reflecting, just leaving silence, and thus making them appear to "fall flat". This, roughly, seems to me one of the characteristic strategies of her whole career.
She also occasionally goes in for the notes of faux-naiveté or lyricism that others have found in her writing. That woman, quoted upthread here, who trashed Didion in about 1979 was good at seeing how repetitive her style was, not just in its flatness but in the particular tactics that she used to relieve the flatness. One that I don't like is her, I think the word is, paratactic style, when she says "and ... and ... and", as though this is a canny literary effect, or as though it conveys being, as an ilxor once said, "overcome by unexpected emotion". I find it rather adolescent, and certainly mannered. The sentences from Hemingway that she quotes admiringly are precisely like this, so she is fairly open, implicitly, about having taken this stylistic idea from an admired precursor. I don't think it's great in Hemingway either.
Didion has a mystique of writing. She talks quite preciously or pretentiously about the experience of writing, the task of the writer, the nature of writing, and so on. One of her claims is that writing is always aggressive (p.44), which is only plausible or true at such a level of abstraction or generality that it has little purchase. It might be more productive to consider how Joan Didion's style, specifically, is sometimes aggressive, while tending to dissemble this.
When I mention a mystique of writing, the best antidote to it that I can think of it might be a long-ago LRB review by Ian Sansom, basically saying that writers like to go on about how hard writing is but actually it's easy compared to other kinds of work. Perhaps a partial truth, but just as useful as Didion's. That review is here:
In these remarks I have tended to focus on the annoying and poor aspects of Didion's writing, but it may be fair to say that first half-dozen essays, which are quite brisk and do report on actual things, have more worth than that.
― the pinefox, Sunday, 26 June 2022 18:52 (five months ago) link
Hilton Als (who?)
oh he put out one of the best essay collections i’ve ever read a few years ago, called white girls. pretty regular new yorker contributor
― flamenco drop (BradNelson), Sunday, 26 June 2022 19:04 (five months ago) link
Yeah, was gonna say that. Haven't read his intro or anything else in the collection, but The Year of Magical Thinking and Where I Was From, which I mentioned upthread, are contributions to world literature, though cost her almost almost all her writing and other life, a lot of loss and endeavor to get there.Seems fitting, since WIWF is from the California Children of the Pioneers mythos, very gradually seeing all through that, closer and closer to home.
― dow, Sunday, 26 June 2022 19:37 (five months ago) link
Thirding White Girls
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Sunday, 26 June 2022 20:07 (five months ago) link
I know it's late but you can read that WA piece - and a lot of the older NYRB articles in general - by putting the URL in the Internet Archive and going to the earlier incarnations. It's actually quite short by NYRB standards.
― gjoon1, Monday, 27 June 2022 22:43 (five months ago) link
This is a great observation! Something that's annoyed me that I haven't seen put into words before. Didion's not the only writer who does this. And obviously it's a staple of reality show editing.
― Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 10:05 (five months ago) link
What annoys you about it? Curious.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 28 June 2022 10:07 (five months ago) link
Thanks, poster Chuck Tatum. I had to think a bit before I could articulate this small observation.
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 10:53 (five months ago) link
Perhaps it's the unprocessed need for the writer to seem smarter than the people they're observing. I guess there's a line between allowing someone the space to damn themselves (which is fine) and unfairly making someone seem like a phoney (which might say more about the author than the subject).
― Chuck_Tatum, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:00 (five months ago) link
Imagine someone (not) reacting to you like that in real life and it’s clear why it’s annoying.
― 29 facepalms, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:02 (five months ago) link
the style referred to entered journalism (or anyway this is my under-informed guess) via the younger new yorker style-switch from a youthful over-admiration of henry james to the golden-bowl guilt phase of absorbing imitating and parodying hemingway and his mentor gertrude stein: whose combined shtick was (a) less is more, let the subtext sing in the air stripped of any DO-YOU-SEE-style announcement* plus in particular stein's penchant for repetition as a device for variation of mode
*where "not saying it" is a mark of shared sensibility: we needn't comment-explain bcz we all already get it (which narrowing of the "we" -- as chuck above suggests -- is actually kind of a betrayal of journalism i guess, certainly a super-complex ethical-aesthetical line that the NYer created and then made its early home in )
yes i am meant to be cleaning my kitchen floor and not at all on this thread, yell at me next time i post plz
― mark s, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:02 (five months ago) link
"less is more" = leaving out the (b) = stein's use of repetition as a forensic device
― mark s, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:03 (five months ago) link
I'm relieved to see that I broadly agree with Mark S, though without knowing enough about New Yorker magazine history.
I like his reference to a "betrayal of journalism".
― the pinefox, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:12 (five months ago) link
This is true, but this approach starts to ebb around the 1980s. It's why I admire Miami and the later work over the more famous early stuff.
― Malevolent Arugula (Alfred, Lord Sotosyn), Tuesday, 28 June 2022 11:39 (five months ago) link
I think it's important for the writer of features and reviews to know when to let the quote have some space around it, for the reader to fill, having established context. The writer also has to be choosy about quotes, not just pick the best or worst lines, but also not just stringing a lot of lines together, beyond just enough of the latter to give the idea, if that's what the artiste mainly does. I've had some hard times with that kind of writing, but it's worth doing, I think--of course some readers, incl. some editors want every damn thing spelled out. I even had one editor who told me to "spoonfeed," in so many words. I don't go around that joint no more.
― dow, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 17:40 (five months ago) link
As a reader, I find it offputting to have the writer jumping in there to explain everything, unless I'm reading an instruction manual or dispatch from a country/situation I've barely heard of etc.
― dow, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 17:42 (five months ago) link
I'm not talking about leaving space in "hard journalism," that is. The harder it is the more I want to be told about it.
― dow, Tuesday, 28 June 2022 17:48 (five months ago) link
― youn, Thursday, 6 October 2022 21:41 (one month ago) link
Who cares if she staged the photo in the article for a Williams Sonoma photo op? She tried to write.
― youn, Thursday, 6 October 2022 21:43 (one month ago) link
betrayal of journalism my ass---in all the things I've read, some of her later writing, she provided the context, and so do the better New Yorker writers, rather jump in there with commentary, lecture points, that Gopnik Thurman etc "polymath" ponderosa
― dow, Thursday, 6 October 2022 23:56 (one month ago) link
She did warn people not to forget she's in the room (as they tended to because she was so small and quiet, she said), because she's there to getcha (that was earlier though, I may never get back that far)
― dow, Thursday, 6 October 2022 23:58 (one month ago) link