Beyond the books: Joan Didion's essays, profiles and criticism

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Beyond the books: Joan Didion's essays, profiles and criticism
Joan Didion attends a benefit gala for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, in New York, Oct. 20, 2009. Didion, whose mordant dispatches on California culture and the chaos of the 1960s established her as a leading exponent of the New Journalism, died at home in Manhattan on Dec. 23, 2021. She was 87. Chad Batka/The New York Times.

by Tina Jordan

NEW YORK, NY.- Joan Didion, who died Thursday at 87, is best known for her essay collections — “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album” and “After Henry,” to name a few — though she also wrote blazingly original narrative nonfiction (“Miami,” “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “Salvador”) and novels (“Play It as It Lays,” “A Book of Common Prayer”). Her work for The New York Times is as eclectic and insightful as you might imagine, ranging from a profile of Joan Baez to a review of John Cheever’s “Falconer.”

‘“Scum,” hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie.’

Didion’s 1966 profile of Joan Baez and the community opposition to the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence — the folk singer’s school in California’s Carmel Valley — is a classic. “‘Scum,’ hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie who had identified himself as ‘a veteran of two wars’ and who is a regular at such meetings. ‘Spaniel.’ He seemed to be referring to the length of Miss Baez’s hair, and was trying to get her attention by tapping with his walking stick, but her eyes did not flicker from the rostrum.”

‘She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt.’

In a 1971 review of Doris Lessing’s novel, “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell,” Didion wrote, “To read a great deal of Doris Lessing over a short span of time is to feel that the original hound of heaven has commandeered the attic. She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt. She appears for meals only to dismiss the household’s own preoccupations with writing well as decadent.”

‘Thin raincoats on bitter nights’

Didion’s fiery words lit up this 1972 essay on the women’s movement: “To read the theorists of the women’s movement was to think not of Mary Wollstonecraft but of Margaret Fuller at her most high‐minded, of rushing position papers off to mimeo and drinking tea from paper cups in lieu of eating lunch; of thin raincoats on bitter nights. If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.’”

A feminist reading list, compiled by Didion, accompanied the essay.

‘Images that shimmer around the edges’

“Why I Write” was adapted from a lecture Didion gave at the University of California, Berkeley. In the 1976 essay, she explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind? When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.”

‘He killed his brother, and who cares’

Didion’s 1977 review of “Falconer,” by John Cheever, was particularly sharp. “I have every expectation that many people will read ‘Falconer’ as another Cheever story about a brainwashed husband who lacked energy for the modern world, so he killed his brother and who cares,” she wrote. “But let me tell you: It is not, and Cheever cares.”

‘Human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.’

In her 1979 review of Norman Mailer’s book about Gary Gilmore, “The Executioner’s Song,” Didion wrote, “The very subject of ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting. Beneath what Mailer calls ‘the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West,’ under that immense blue which dominates ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ not too much makes a difference.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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