I wrote about Joan Didion’s book Blue Nights not too long ago and recently started rereading The White Album. So I was excited when this month’s issue of The Atlantic arrived and I saw that Caitlin Flanagan has an article on Didion. I haven’t always agreed with the positions Flanagan takes in her articles, but I had to see what she was going to say about Didion.
Sorry to say, but my opinion hasn’t really changed when it comes to Flanagan’s work. The article is titled, “The Autumn of Joan Didion” with a subtitle that reads–The writer’s work is a triumph-and a disaster. In the piece, Flanagan creates a fan club for Didion’s work that’s so exclusive even Didion doesn’t get to join. After reading Flanagan’s piece, I felt stupid for having found Blue Nights a good and affecting read. Jealous because my parents never had Joan Didion over for dinner and lacking because I didn’t discover Didion’s work when I was a teenager. I found Didion when I was in college, just a few years too late to join Flanagan’s Didion-Frozen-in-Time Fan Club.
Here’s the thing–while Flanagan has a very clear and true appreciation for Didion’s early essays and the rock star status Didion achieved with women in the 1960′s and 70′s, she’s reading Didion’s work through a very narrow lens. She talks mainly about Didion’s essays, though she says that novels are Didion’s real writing passion. She doesn’t discuss her opinion of the merits or flaws of The Year of Magical Thinking which won a National Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Instead, she slices Didion’s body of work into a pie with only a couple of books being worthy of note or whipped cream topping.
I haven’t read The Year of Magical Thinking yet because I left my copy in a hotel room in San Diego and only just replaced it yesterday. I’ve been looking for a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays so that I can reread it, but haven’t found it at two Barnes and Noble stores (practically the only bookstore left). I ordered it on Powell’s tonight. I’ve read Play It As It Lays at least twice. I tell you all of this hoping you’ll agree that I deserve a Joan Didion Fan badge. Flanagan would probably tell me to have Izzy apply (Izzy turns 16 this year). From the article:
“Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves. ‘I’ve been reading you since I was an adolescent,’ a distinctly non-adolescent voice said on a call-in show a decade ago, and Didion nodded, comprehending. All of us who love her the most have, in ways literal and otherwise, been reading her since adolescence.”
The way I see it is that a good or even great writer is someone you discover in all sorts of ways, at different times. It can depend on location, your life story, the state of your romantic life, how much sleep you’re getting, if you’re happy, grieving, neutral or anxious. Where and when you enter a writer’s work is a little bit serendipity, sometimes peer influence or just dumb luck. One of the reasons Alice Munro is my favorite writer is that her work has spoken to me at every stage of my life since my early 20′s. I fully expect that when I’m old enough to finally let my hair go grey, I’ll still find recognizable pieces of myself stuffed in those pages. This is the rather personal part of what makes a writer enduring.
Reading The White Album now is interesting because I’m a California resident and in some ways, wanting to follow in Didion’s footsteps as an essay writer. Back in college, I was a wanna be actress in New Jersey with only the vaguest notion that filling up notebooks might indicate that I liked writing enough to pursue it. Didion’s work means something different to me this time around. And that’s what Flanagan’s essay is missing.
Didion was that girl-turning-into-woman that Flanagan describes, but she’s more than that. Her work endures at least in part, because the essays, memoirs and novels continue to engage, ignite and inspire. Didion’s work interests me less for her descriptions of fashion than for the range of topics she covered. From Flanagan’s article and Didion’s work, I know that Didion wrote quickly, trying to make money. So her speed is also impressive because she didn’t sacrifice depth and quality.
I’m not arguing for or against the greatness of Didion’s last few books. I know The Year of Magical Thinking has meant a lot to friends who have lost someone close. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read, but I don’t know her work well enough to do a thorough comparison. Flanagan knows more than I do about the full body of Didion’s work. I’m taking Flanagan to task for freezing Didion in time in terms of her subject matter and writing. I’m also really annoyed that an article trumpeting Didion’s triumphs makes me feel like I just can’t ever appreciate the work properly because I didn’t start reading it when I was 15. As though there is only way to love Didion’s work.
I grew up in South Jersey in a town with one blinking red light, corn fields that were giving way to pre-fab housing developments and an Air Force base. I spent hours in my bedroom pouring over Vogue magazine and plotting my escape to New York where I’d lead a glamorous, intellectual sort of life. In other words, I wanted to be Joan Didion before I’d ever heard of her or read her books. I wish I’d found her earlier, somehow I think it would have saved me a pile of heartache and gotten me to the place I am now as a writer much sooner. So I’ll pass her books on to my daughters soon and hope they both fall for Didion.
Flanagan’s piece on Didion has garnered her a lot of attention. There are over 300 comments on The Atlantic site, there’s an interview with Flanagan about the article on the Huffington Post and the piece has been highlighted on Facebook and blogs since it came out. Read it for yourself and see what you think. Tell Barnes and Noble to order more copies of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. They really should have that book in stock. Check out Blue Nights as a memoir on motherhood, aging and losing a child. Then we can meet back here and talk about it all. Who wants to design the I-Love-Joan-Didion button?