UPON THE DEATH of Joan Didion at age 87 at the close of 2021, her admirers shared a common adoration for one facet of her genius. “Her sentences — dear Lord, her sentences!” wrote The New York Times’s Frank Bruni in a tribute published on Christmas Eve. Twitter accolades from poets, journalists, and fans echoed this praise, to such repetitive vehemence that LARB’s own Phillip Maciak tweeted, “Joan Didion is one of the greatest writers of sentences to ever live on planet Earth. Sentences are different now because of the way she wrote. SENTENCES!”
This repeated accolade makes sense for such an eminent and prolific American writer, one whose legacy was secured long before her death. Brian Dillon anticipated Didion eulogies by writing a chapter about her “prose like a shiny carapace” in his 2020 book about the art of the sentence. All this praise is also, of course, a spectacular neg — a backhanded compliment that lauds her craft without engaging her ideas. We avert our eyes from the content of Didion’s writing, or at least make it secondary to style. While Didion’s primary subjects are also well known — the 1960s, California, the neuroses of having a self — they cannot compete with the singular elegance of her syntax. This is by her own design. Far from mangling her legacy, the ubiquitous neg is the product of Didion’s own self-fashioning. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” she wrote. For Didion, syntax was jazz, an improvised and instinctual play of ideas on paper, a pair of dark sunglasses that complete an outfit but obscure one’s eyes. Didion embodied in grammar what she contributed to the reputation of the 1960s counterculture more broadly. She put the sentence in vogue, and in so doing, she abdicated responsibility for what it meant. She understood what lies at the heart of coolness: a very carefully cultivated refusal to care.
Revisiting writers at the end of their lives often leads us to evaluate the long arcs of their political visions. In the Los Angeles Times, Jessica Ferri notes that an unauthorized biography of Didion, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song (2015), revealed that Didion was no radical, nor “even a liberal.” In Daugherty’s book, Ferri writes, “Millennials learned an uncomfortable truth about Didion’s politics.” But this information was not new. In the foreword to her image-defining work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Didion wrote that many of the readers demanded to know how she justified publishing her work in the conservative Saturday Evening Post. Her answer? “The Post is extremely receptive to what the writer wants to do […] and is meticulous about not changing copy.” From the earliest days of her career, Didion declared her allegiance to craft above politics.
As discussed on Dissent Magazine’s podcast Know Your Enemy, Didion was part of a large class of conservative writers making names for themselves in the 1960s and ’70s, especially from the platform of the National Review, which recruited arty and pedigreed writers to gain credibility in the face of liberal backlash. She belonged to an era in which an aura of Republican reasonableness was in no way incompatible with New York socialite chic. And then the Republican Party changed, not least with the rise of Ronald Reagan, who she hated. As conservatism became more populist, more evangelical, and, worst of all, more gauche, she left it behind. She sincerely became more progressive over the course of her life, calling for the exoneration of the Central Park Five in a 1991 essay. However, she remained a militant non-joiner of political movements. Anybody could be the target of her gloomy, shimmering sentences; she neither comforted the disturbed nor disturbed the comfortable. But it would be a mistake to call these refusals a letdown, at least to Didion’s acolytes.
Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s 1980 takedown of Didion bitterly identifies her draw. “Readers find Didion’s fatalism and her fashionably apocalyptic outlook comforting. If the plague is indeed coming […] what is there to do but wait, curtains drawn and migrainous, contemplating — if we are lucky enough to have them — our roses?” It’s no wonder that, when Didion’s death came, two years into the promised plague, her fans admired her sentences and let the other things go. Her privileged political despair, dressed up in silk and dark shades, can feel like an indulgence we’ve earned.
It was Harrison’s opinion that Didion’s nihilism rendered her writing shallow, superior, and abstract. “[She] makes it a point of honor not to struggle for meaning,” she wrote. The critique is legitimate, and it’s difficult to read Didion’s journalism, especially without a keen sense of her disdain for her subjects, from the lost children of the Haight Street hippie scene to suburban lady-murderers. Their small lives, her writing implies, exist primarily to inspire near-Parisian levels of elegant despair. In one of her best-known essays, the title piece of The White Album, she learns the story of a woman who left her young daughter to die on a major freeway, an act of senseless cruelty. She contextualizes the event in her own life with a sentence that perhaps demonstrates her syntactical reputation. She read about this tragic abandonment in papers brought from “the mainland,” she writes. “I spent what seemed to many people I knew an eccentric amount of time in Honolulu, the particular aspect of which lent me the illusion that I could any minute order from room service a revisionist theory of my own history, garnished with a vanda orchid.” This sentence bears many hallmarks of Didion’s style, from pretending that extreme wealth is “eccentric” rather than extravagant, to a crisis of selfhood, with a flourish of fragile blooms. It has what Dillon calls “a certain sonic ease.” It’s a wordy sentence, crowded with prepositional phrases, but she anchors it with expensive detail, as if syntactical clarity could be ordered from room service too. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel puts everything at her fingertips, gives her the peace of mind to imagine recreating the self along more tropical lines. This is the setting in which she internalizes tragic, sordid events like a young girl left to die on the freeway, and the orchid’s presence matters. When we praise Didion’s sentences, we have to admit that the combination of these two details does appeal to us. Horrible news is inevitable; Didion manages to douse it in elegance, to rearrange its grimness with the kind of detail bought with cash.
In recent years especially, Didion’s status as style icon has superseded her literary reputation. Vogue, Elle, and countless smaller outlets have reprinted her famous White Album packing list, with its emphasis on bourbon, leotards (no shirts nor underwear), and a mohair throw for cold hotel rooms. Elle’s entry, entitled “That Time I Let Joan Didion Pack My Weekend Bag,” includes links to shopping affiliates; readers can purchase dupes of Didion’s cashmere pullover with three clicks. Didion appeared in an ad for the Gap with her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, in 1989 and, as an octogenarian in 2015, alone for Celine in signature oversized dark glasses. And then there are the older photos, which circulate on social media all the time: Didion in long dress and flip-flops in front of her 1969 Corvette Stingray, or leaning on the veranda railing of her Malibu home. No matter how much she claims to be a nobody, her writing is full of name-dropping. When Janis Joplin came over, Didion mentions in passing, she wanted “brandy-and-Benedictine in a water tumbler” to drink.
Whether Didion was successful in accurately documenting her era, either in dress or in syntax, she fundamentally shaped the tradition of female literary celebrity that would follow her. Stylish and mysterious women had written books before, but she was the first to work at the nexus of Hollywood fame and New Journalism, not to mention the rise of second-wave feminism. The times were right to launch a persona that could bridge the divide between popular and literary culture, especially in the era of upwardly mobile literary white women, whose mere presence in the public sphere could register as feminist “progress.” While Gloria Steinem dressed as a Playboy Bunny, Didion pioneered a more buttoned-up form of liberal feminist enlightenment: a public intellectual whose brains were somehow compatible with her ballet dancer physique and soft voice. In so doing, she paved the way for Donna Tartt and Sally Rooney, two other white women whose brooding books, shy manners, and minimalist wardrobes made them favorites online, from academic twitter to BookTok, the corner of viral video platform TikTok where young people recommend and discuss literature.
Tartt and Rooney have both bristled at the pressures of fame, but of course, that’s part of the coolness equation that Didion taught. More important than proximity to Malibu or writing sentences that unroll like carpets is disdain for attention. Rooney’s protagonists in particular have absorbed the other lesson Didion taught without saying a word: to be beautiful and tragic you must be very, very thin. For her, syntactical economy was synonymous with every other kind. If her sentences were stripped back of effusion or unnecessary details, so too her plain (expensive) wardrobe and spare frame made her just as chic. Didion defined coolness as disaffection. She disregarded the impulse to make political appeals as another form of appetite. Finn McRedmond notes that Rooney’s protagonists “can only produce good work when [they are] starving.” Appetite is anathema to coolness. Despair is slim and languid; it makes a dress hang in elegant straight lines.
Our standards of coolness have changed and expanded since Didion’s heyday. Literary celebrities are no longer entirely white or American, although beauty, often defined by European standards of slenderness and bone structure, still counts. There was a two-year period when, every time I entered the popular eyewear retailer Warby Parker, the low wall-to-wall shelving had been filled with copies of Zadie Smith’s novel Swing Time, for no apparent reason. Through her immense acclaim as a novelist, she had become decor. The parallels are even more pronounced between Didion and New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, whose best-selling book, Trick Mirror (2019), echoes some of the most famous Didion lines: the world is nonsensical, but I write to find out what I mean, who I am. Lauren Oyler’s semi-viral review of Trick Mirror also strikes a familiar chord. Every Tolentino essay taking the pulse on “the culture,” she writes, becomes a circular reflection on the author herself; acknowledging this fact makes the inward turn literary, artistic, even brave. Though both writers claim to be self-deprecating, their status as beautiful is unquestioned. Oyler remarks that she assumes that Tolentino “must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.” Didion, who personally shopped for a dress for Manson murderer Linda Kasabian to wear to court, would probably sympathize.
In this era of the girlboss, where biographies of Harriet Tubman announce that “She Came to Slay,” it would make sense to lobby for Didion’s stylishness as a revolutionary act, her gorgeous sentences some kind of “Lean in, listen up, boys!” Didion would hate this move, and I hate it too. On the other hand, while I’m grateful for the energy and rigor of feminist critiques like Harrison’s and Oyler’s, I can’t match it. I have always loved her writing, more or less uncritically. For one, her style was practically designed to appeal to 21-year-old bookish girls. But even more, Didion’s particular brand of pessimism feels unnervingly relevant for our times. She meditated on societal collapse, on plague years and senseless violence. Though many of our current public intellectuals (girlboss and otherwise) have been required to take more hardline political stances, the impulse to give up, to revel in loss, has never been more tempting.
Nowhere does Didion’s ennui seem so trenchant as in her reflections on climate crisis. For her, the cruelty of an uncaring ecosystem lived very intimately with the glamour of Los Angeles. Didion knew two Californias: Hollywood glitz and the Wild West, a vast and uncivilized desert, a bleak settler fantasy. This California, the one in which she and I were born, was a place for religious ecstasy, blunted prairie manners, and existential dread. She obsessively prodded the permeable barrier between the two Californias and found the inspiration for much of her writing there. This portrait is also the source of her most delectable and embarrassing snobbery. Of the dusty and conservative county of San Bernardino she writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke.”
Long before climate change became a popular talking point, Didion depicted Los Angeles as a city whose appeal was entangled with the caprices of atmosphere. She focused especially on the Santa Ana winds, which blow in toward the coast from the Sierras each winter, bringing a strange alchemical tang that sets the whole city on edge. In “Los Angeles Notebook,” she writes, “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse […] the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.” These sentences depend on repetition and rhythm, cultivating unease as they collect attributes of the apocalyptic city.
For Didion, the chic desperation of Los Angeles was inseparable from climate despair. A place known for its good weather and laid-back attitudes, she thought, gained its racy edge from frequent disturbances in the atmosphere, impressing themselves upon the psyche of each resident. She was loath to find political meaning in this, preferring to brood as the superstition-laced wind made suicide rates go up and the fillings in one’s mouth vibrate. While this apathy became one of her greatest calling cards for fans, her detractors, quite rightly, react with frustration. Didion is at her most divisive when she revels in nihilism. I can’t make concrete judgments about who falls on either side of the division between fan and detractor, but I do know that Didion’s elegant disinterest has become less satisfying, less thrilling, for me as I have grown older. Reading her as a 21-year-old also anxious to escape dusty inland California for a new landscape, I shared in her glamour. Now, nearing 30, I am frustrated by the way she substituted detail and self-pity for action. For me and, I imagine, many of her readers, she represents the particular time and place, not only of Los Angeles in 1969, but of our own lives, a moody and literary girlhood many miles from the nearest beach.
The last lines of The White Album center on the fire season of 1978, which razed hundreds of houses in her neighborhood in Malibu, just after she and her family had left it.
[M]y husband and daughter and I went to look at the house on the Pacific Coast Highway in which we had lived for seven years. The fire had come to within 125 feet of the property, then stopped or turned or been beaten back, it was hard to tell which. In any case it was no longer our house.
Didion’s references to her house on the PCH aren’t precisely relatable, nor are they designed to be. However, her impulse to walk away from the fire, down toward the beach, has lingering — if inconsistent — appeal. For many readers, the selfishness of ignoring a fire is the last luxury America affords.
Ana Quiring is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has appeared in Avidly, Feminist Modernist Studies, Full Stop, and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She tweets @AnaQuiring.