On Joan Didion and Being Serious
By Sophia StewartMarch 13, 2021
For my most recent birthday, my mom fastened my head atop Joan Didion. She used that now-iconic image of her in big black sunglasses, posing in front of some shaggy-haired rockers. This was her most realist collage to date: she chose a shot of me wearing similar sunglasses and an identical haircut, and turned it black-and-white to match the original image. From far away, it almost didn’t look like the photo was altered at all.
I don’t remember when Joan Didion officially entered my consciousness, but I first sought out her work when I started college. One day in my freshman year, I went to the campus library and left with a backpack stuffed with The White Album, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The Year of Magical Thinking. The interest I took in her was based solely on superficial similarities — we were both petite daughters of California, our sandy brown hair parted down the middle and hovering above our shoulders; we both went to UC Berkeley and liked ice-cold Coca-Cola; she lived for a time in Los Angeles, where I’m from.
Didion’s prose immediately earned my admiration. Her sentences were smooth and strong, her cadence unlike anything I’d encountered before. Her gaze was sharp, often piercing. Like a journalist she captured small details and candid moments, then arranged them like a collagist. But I kept all this to myself; liking Joan Didion as a college-aged, straight, white, and often miserable woman was a well-established cliché. The only evidence was a small magazine clipping taped to my dorm wall, a pull-quote by Eve Babitz: “JOAN MADE IT O.K. TO BE SERIOUS ABOUT L.A.”
When at the end of my sophomore year my mom helped me move out of my dorm and back to Los Angeles for the summer, I gave her a tour of campus. I showed her my favorite building, Wheeler Hall. I loved it for its majestic architecture and because outside the entrance was a banner with Didion’s face on one side and on the other her words: “Without Berkeley, the world I know would have been narrowed, constricted, diminished.” My mom gasped in excitement. “Ooooooh!” she squealed. “Quick, go stand under it!” She pulled out her phone and took a picture. I flashed a toothy smile while a young, brooding Joan hovered above.
Joan Didion is a serious writer. She graces us with sporadic flashes of self-revelation — she famously excerpted her 1968 psychiatric evaluation in “The White Album” and began “In the Islands” with the admission that she and her husband were visiting Hawaii “in lieu of filing for divorce” — but even then, these moments are less about divulging emotion than stating fact.
On the whole, the prose is dispassionate. Even when she mines collective dread and confusion, she keeps cool. She objectively recounts an encounter with a preschooler on LSD. She reports calmly on the murder trials of Lucille Maxwell Miller and the Manson family. Didion’s later memoirs, the most personal of her books, still anatomize the author’s grief with reportorial detachment. I envied her stoic clarity, how she wasn’t so narcissistic as to allow her heart-feelings to cloud her critical work (as I always have). But because of the false kinship I’d mentally forged between us, I also wanted to know her — not just her packing list but her heart.
I read Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Didion, The Last Love Song, in an attempt to access this knowledge. My mom gave me the book for Christmas; it was the first biography I ever finished. I liked the portrait Daugherty painted of Didion in her early years: “[A]t Berkeley, wrapped in a bedspread, nibbling chocolate in the dark in the middle of the night.” I liked that Didion attributed her keenness as an observer and success as an interloper to her slight frame — I’d never thought to see smallness as a strength, a guise. I liked the aura of her life: the languid days spent in Malibu, the dinner parties with Patti Smith and Martin Scorsese. This is to say my infatuation with her image began to overtake my reverence for her prose.
“Picture Joan Didion in or near a Corvette, smoking cigarettes elegantly, drinking bourbon casually,” writes Molly Fischer in her essay for The Cut, “Why Loving Joan Didion Is a Trap,” “and you have the 19-year-old writer’s fantasy version of herself.” At the height of my fascination, I was that 19-year-old writer, glomming onto the Didion aesthetic at the expense of the work. I loved the surface, more than the substance. Joan was a serious writer, and I her unserious devotee.
In an email to an older writer with whom I correspond, I mentioned a line of Didion’s that had been on my mind. He replied that Didion was a “strange case” for him: “I recognize that she’s a great writer; I just don’t love her, for some reason,” he wrote. “She leaves me cold.” There are few writers whose work I admire more than my correspondent’s; I had no choice but to consider his take.
Had Didion ever made me feel anything other than a craftsperson’s reverence? Had she ever moved me on a level beyond technique or form or workmanship? Of course her memoirs left a poignant impression. But there were four decades of prior work to account for — had any of that made me feel? I berated myself for even asking. She’s a master stylist of divine intellect! Who cares if you felt something? Were her chronicles of society’s disintegration not enough to inspire a single feeling?
“Humorless,” my writer friend had called Slouching Towards Bethlehem. He is one of the funniest writers I know. His essays are in a sense serious — they tackle grim topics, contain impeccable prose — but also make me laugh and gasp and feel. I didn’t do these things when I read Didion. It was her aura, her image — movie stars and murder and Malibu, floor-length dresses accessorized with a cigarette and sunglasses, the Stingray gunning up the 101 — that made me feel.
I suspect Didion would not find my affinities endearing. She appears immune to passions and obsessions. Sure, she likes Hemingway and beaches and jasmine soap and John Wayne movies, but she rarely betrays a sense of awe. How embarrassing for me, then, to be awestruck by something as frivolous as her fashion or her car. Still, among strangers, liking Joan Didion sounded impressive and revealing of some inner sophistication. “Invoking Didion’s image is a way to confer seriousness on style,” Fischer writes. The truth was that I was more interested by her personal style than her literary seriousness, but by claiming her in her entirety, I could pass myself off as both stylish and serious. And I wanted to be serious. Right?
Like Didion, after graduating from Berkeley I moved to New York to live and write. I was under no illusion that the writing life would be a glamorous one, or that Didion’s particular writing life could be replicated within contemporary constraints. The circumstances of Didion’s transcoastal move are impossible, even farcical, in the present day: as a college senior, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue, the prize a research assistant position at the magazine. Straight out of university she was literally awarded the kind of job recent grads now dream of.
In New York, she spent days working at Vogue and nights writing her first novel, Run, River, which, according to Daugherty, got published mostly because her boyfriend-at-the-time knew the right people. (The novel was surely worthy of publication on its own merits, but it likely wasn’t published on merit alone.) Many of the publications where Didion went on to make a name for herself have either lost their luster or shuttered. And in today’s fragmented (and actively imploding) digital media landscape, a career like Didion’s is hard to have. Many contemporary women writers, like Jia Tolentino and Anna Wiener, get compared to Didion (though the value of making these comparisons is admittedly questionable), but her unique cultural cachet — a fame that transcends literary circles — feels like a thing of the past, something not even Tolentino or Wiener has quite achieved. “Public demand for the exacting insights of practitioner-critics,” wrote Giles Harvey in a 2016 profile of the great Cynthia Ozick, “never high, has been in steady decline for a good while now.”
The recent publication of Let Me Tell You What I Mean, a book of 12 previously uncollected essays, has put Didion’s longevity and relevance to the test. Would anyone still care about Joan Didion? The answer has been an unequivocal yes. Upon its release, almost every major magazine — prestige and popular alike — churned out write-ups, round-ups, and think pieces devoted to the book. On its pub day, millennial actress Emma Roberts shared a black-and-white photo snuggling with her newborn, the book splayed on top of them: “Joan’s new collection is out today ✨.”
“[I]t is odd,” writes Nathan Heller in a recent New Yorker article, “to find Didion embraced by the world of mainstream sentimental thinking which she charged against for decades.” Indeed, Didion has been turned into an idol without having to die young. An entire cottage industry has sprung up around her: an Etsy search for “Joan Didion” turns up just shy of 100 results. Posters, stickers, enamel pins. An iPhone case that reads: “New York made Joan Didion cry too.” Admittedly, knowing New York made Joan Didion cry is little consolation when New York makes me cry; California also made her cry.
A couple weeks after I arrived in New York, I discovered at my local bookstore an anthology entitled Slouching Towards Los Angeles: Living and Writing by Joan Didion’s Light. It felt like some kind of sign; I already missed home. I bought it and read it in a single September afternoon from a bench on the corner of Lafayette and Fulton. It’s an uneven but enjoyable anthology. The truly great essays — from Su Wu, Michelle Chihara, and Joshua Wolf Shenk — stand out among the rest. Wu’s essay “Despair and Doing” is far and away the best in the book — one of the best essays I have read period — and it brought me closer to understanding Didion’s emotional core: “Didion has been accused so often of glamorizing depression,” Wu writes, “but instead what she’s glamorizing is the slim possibility of depression not hollowing one out, of despair and doing.” Plagued by migraines and mental illness, Didion managed to produce dozens of books and screenplays and lead a flashy, beautiful life. Didion, then, embodies not just glamour but resilience. If in college, my admiration for Didion’s image supplanted that for her prose, then in this moment, my admiration for the person supplanted that for the image.
In another of the anthology’s essays, Lauren Sandler writes, “For a long time I wanted Joan Didion’s heart […] to be as messy as mine, but I could never find that mess etched on her pages.” I wanted the mess, too. But Didion doesn’t do mess. Even when the culture is atomizing. Even when everything is falling apart.
Her refusal of mess was a sign of her grit, a trait of hers that I revered and knew I ought to revere in a person. To be clear I wasn’t looking for messy prose. I loved the neatness and exactitude of her language. But on the page, I also wanted her to wear her heart on her sleeve, even if in life she rarely did. I wanted her foregrounded, wrestling with and writing alongside her emotions. She had no interest in what I wanted — the purportedly unserious stuff we are primed to expect from women writers — which made me want it all the more.
The word “cool” is one of the most versatile in the English lexicon. Here are five of Merriam-Webster’s dozen definitions:
1. Moderately cold; lacking in warmth
2. Marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control
3. (of jazz) Marked by restrained emotion
4. Very good; excellent
5. Fashionable; hip
All of these could describe Didion. The word “cool” appears in Slouching Towards Los Angeles a cool 18 times. The anthology’s contributors characterize Didion by her “aspirational cool,” her “detached cool,” her “cool analysis.” Her style was “too cool to be uncalculated,” and her approach “made journalism feel rock-star cool.” Impressed by Didion’s calm demeanor while her husband lay dying, a doctor once remarked: “She’s a pretty cool customer.” She is undeniably cool in every sense of the word. But the older I get, the less interested I am in coolness, in myself and in others. Warmth is what I gravitate toward. Especially now, in the nadir of New York winter, in a year so unprecedentedly dire.
In the City I worked for a time at an independent publisher, where I was confronted again with the question of seriousness. Publishing is a serious business. At work we published many serious books, for which we sought serious blurbs from serious blurbers. After hours I read Didion, dabbled in Hardwick and Sontag. All heavyweights who write with palpable heaviness. All serious writers. I learned that Sontag wrote into one of her short stories a character called “the slave of seriousness.” I did not want to be a slave of seriousness. Daily living was already inexorably serious; I didn’t feel cut out to handle any more.
What does it really mean to be a serious writer, a serious person? For women, especially young women, being taken seriously is a rare privilege. We’re up against what Lili Loofbourow calls “the male glance,” a dismissive approach to women’s stories and art that renders them unserious. In her own career, Man Booker Prize–winning novelist Eleanor Catton says she “observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel.” The interviews she gives “seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Loofbourow’s argument makes a crucial distinction: our understanding of seriousness is too narrow. All kinds of art can be serious if we just take it seriously. “We still have not quite learned to see female storytellers as either masterful or intentional,” Loofbourow writes. Didion has earned both distinctions, perhaps because her writing is cool, hard, distant — in other words, masculine. She also famously kept her distance from the burgeoning feminist movement, regarding it with a combination of distaste and disinterest. If being warm and soft and close and feminist render a writer, or me, unserious, so be it.
I like Joan Didion. I do. I like her competence, her withering gaze and melancholic bent. I like that she looks a little bit like me. I like that she put California on the literary map. Didion, stolid and wise, gives me strength. To wade into turmoil, to face chaos head-on. Perhaps to publish my own psychiatric history! I admire her for who she is and for what she’s done — for establishing the image of a “serious” woman writer, by means of “serious” writing, at a time when women’s writing wasn’t taken seriously. But hers is not a path I can entirely emulate. I can only write the work I want to write — work full of heart and warmth — and hope that it too can command respect.
Where does Didion the woman end and Didion’s work begin? The woman I admire emerges partly from her writing (The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking especially), but she is also an extratextual composite. She comes from The Last Love Song, from Slouching Towards Los Angeles, from documentaries and think pieces and old interviews and the many, many photographs taken of her in her lifetime. From the picture of her in the big black sunglasses, posing in front of the shaggy-haired rockers.
At best, Joan would probably find my mom’s collaged birthday card to be silly; at worst, deeply weird. Still, it makes me laugh.
Sophia Stewart is a writer, editor, and cultural critic from Los Angeles. You can find her writing here and follow her on Twitter @smswrites.
Featured image: “Joan Didion" by Incase is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.
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