Even Joan Didion's Unfinished Notes Are Good as Hell
In recent years, Joan Didion has been heralded as a literary hero for young women. Although her new book, "South and West," is small and apparently aimless, it nevertheless proves why she should be.
Photo via Flickr user Tradlands
It is with a heavy heart and a guilty glance of understanding that I write for you yet another piece about how good Joan Didion is at writing. She's really good at it. She is so good at it that to read almost anything she writes is to feel relief: You do not have to make allowances for Joan Didion. You do not have to wonder if there is something wrong with you because you find almost everything people claim to be great writing to be not great writing at all. You do not have to entertain the possibility that a series of unremarkable sentences or inappropriate vocabulary words contains some kernel of genius that you cannot access, because there are few of either in Joan Didion's work. Even Joan Didion's new book, South and West, which is very short, just two sets of notes she took in the 70s for two pieces she never wrote, offers this kind of literary assurance: Greatness is out there, you don't have to settle.
I am not a Joan Didion superfan by any means, but I accepted my editor's offer to write about this new book that I probably wouldn't have otherwise read because it is always, at the very least, inarguably nice to read Joan Didion. South and West begins with its much longer section "Notes on the South," which the author wrote while on a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She could not pin down why she had gone:
There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went at the time I went: nothing "happened" anywhere I was, no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God. I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center. I didn't much want to talk about this. I had only the most ephemeral "picture" in my mind.
A forthright passage that elegantly and impressively describes a vague idea. You know what she means, even if you may find this interpretation of the South misguided. As it turns out, Didion did not end up enjoying her trip at all, and her go-getting reporter impulses "atrophied." In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, she found "[a] somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing." In Biloxi, "The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down." In Birmingham, there was "[t]he sense of sports being the opiate of the people." In New Orleans, she noticed
a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy... and all the king's men would turn on the king.
She avoided going to Jackson because she was afraid she would be too tempted to buy the first flight out to New York or Los Angeles and thus fail to accomplish her reporting project, which she does not end up accomplishing.
In the LA Times, Michelle Dean describes the book as "mysterious" and ends her review with several questions posed by its "teasing effect" and "enigmatic packaging." (Among them: What if Didion had finished these pieces? Does she wish that she had?") But while I agree that South and West is an odd little thing—though I expect its motives are more explicable than Dean allows for, in that people will of course buy a "new Joan Didion book"—I don't think her piece on the South is not an accomplishment. (Her "California Notes" are forgettable and more meandering, though they still contain invigorating sentences.) I have quoted a lot already for two reasons. The first is that I am from West Virginia, and I like Didion's depiction of the drag of life in the South; most writing about the region by outsiders romanticizes its struggles, and insiders are defensive and not as common. Maybe Didion went in with some of the wispy ideas of Southern mystique that non-Southern reporters can't let go of when it comes time to write their pieces, but here the author's tininess—in "Notes on the South," a "weighing machine" says she is 96 pounds—is an asset: She becomes weighed down by the place. While some may call this elitism or snobbery—and Didion's handling of race in this book is very skittish—it still reflects truths about the South, at least for people like Joan Didion. Every time I go there, I find myself physically exhausted, unable to get out of bed or to stop myself returning to it.
The second reason I'm quoting a lot is basically the same as the first, which I could just boil down to "Joan Didion is a great writer." As Christian Lorentzen writes in his September 2015 piece "Toward a Unified Theory of Joan Didion," "The temptation with Didion is always to quote, and at length, to let her sentences overwhelm your own because they're so much better than yours (by which I mean mine)."
That quotability is a gift and a curse. Two years have passed since the period of Joan Didion mania anyone with vaguely literary interests will remember well, and Lorentzen was reflecting on its end. In October 2014, Vogue republished Didion's 1961 essay "On Self-Respect," and its relevance to mainstream feminist priorities—"You do you," self-care, etc.—likely advanced the popularity of Didion's more personal work on Tumblr and Instagram. That month, a Didion documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, raised $200,000, more than double its goal, on Kickstarter. In January 2015, Didion was unveiled as the face of a new Céline ad, launching a spate of cautionary pieces about what it means to like Joan Didion. (The Cut's Molly Fischer said it was "a trap;" Haley Mlotek at the Hairpin urged her "fellow sad young literary girls" to "Free Joan Didion.") In February, Chelsea's Danziger Gallery held an exhibition of Julian Wasser photographs, all of Joan Didion. About eight months later, Tracy Daugherty published a biography of the author, The Last Love Song, which was occasion for more reflection on the "fetishization and deconstruction of Didion's image."
Few argued that the obsessive nature of Joan Didion fandom had to do with her writing, or was mainly to do with it, though all of the writers used various phrases—to Elle's Lizzy Goodman, reading Didion is "an exercise in collecting apparently random yet somehow riveting details"—to underscore a mutual understanding of Didion's work. But because these writers were confronted with how they, in Mlotek's words, "had been so thoroughly and effectively target marketed" with the Céline ad, the point was always to figure out what it means to like Joan Didion, not what Joan Didion really means when she writes. "Reading her," Goodman writes, "I feel that if I do as Didion has done, wear what she has worn, stand where she has stood, I might eventually locate myself."
I have no problem reading an author for selfish reasons—I can think of very few justifications for reading that aren't, ultimately, selfish. What most of these pieces also had in common was that they were written by women, and concerned the supposedly feminine essence of Didion's work. In a 2012 piece in the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan argued that "to really love Joan Didion—to have been blown over by things like the smell of jasmine and the packing list she kept by her suitcase—you have to be female." Later in the same piece, Flanagan takes (mocking) offense at a male academic asking Didion to remind him what she wore to pass as a hippie in Haight-Ashbury, arguing that "Not remembering what Joan wore in the Haight (a skirt with a leotard and stockings) is like not remembering what Ahab was trying to kill in Moby-Dick."
Both of these assertions are ridiculous, as Christian Lorentzen argues in his 2015 essay. "'Loving' a writer, for me," he writes, "is a matter of returning to her sentences over and over again, not a matter of identification, aspiration, emotion, or taking her words as Gospel truth, but an attraction of attention.
"Perhaps that's a defective—because it's heartless—definition of love," he goes on. "I'd be dishonest if I said this troubled me."
I imagine heartlessness—or at least ruthlessness—is a quality Didion would want us to bring to her work.
I imagine heartlessness—or at least ruthlessness—is a quality Didion would want us to bring to her work. In 1979, the writer Barbara Harrison declared, "Didion's heart is cold," in a piece that also called Didion "the lyricist of the irrational" and argued Didion's "proclivity for 'aimless revelation' does tell us something: to attach oneself only to the unanalyzable incident (especially when one's subject matter intersects with the political passions of our times) is to prefer to love one's pain; it is to caress and nourish one's pain, to find it of infinitely more value than the pain of 'acquaintances [who] read The New York Times and try to tell me the news of the world.'" You could argue that South and West, which does not really deal with any "political passions" of any time directly, supports Harrison's characterization: In a lesser writer's hand's, "Notes on the South" would be positively whiny.
My friend Jo Livingstone recently wrote a piece called "In Defense of Cultural Criticism in Trump's America" for the New Republic, and in it, she argues that cultural critics have a responsibility to resist the nagging sense of pointlessness we've felt since Donald Trump became the president, as well as to ignore the urge to be topical and connect to Donald Trump every discussion of a new art exhibit or book that has little to do with Donald Trump. Art, she says, is about "stak[ing] out" a zone "for a variety of ideas and postures to flex and interact"; similarly, to demand that art always respond directly to specific political moments is akin to "scholars poring over the novels of, say, Jonathan Franzen to discover whether he thought Donald Trump was good or bad, instead of absorbing his depiction of the features of American politics and culture in the early 21st century on its own terms."
I think this is right, and I think these little sets of Joan Didion notes are an example of how ostensibly purposeless writing can go beyond "aimless revelation" and have real value. Harrison's attempted takedown leaves out much about Didion's reporting prowess, particularly Didion's ability to convey an atmosphere in which her ideas and postures can flex and interact. In South and West, that atmosphere is not divorced from the politics of the region or time because Didion doesn't address them directly, or because Didion herself pops up in the narration. Rather, the picture becomes in some ways more natural, more complete. If these notebooks were more targeted, they might give off the same forced, awkward sense of the countless articles that Livingstone regrets in her piece, the ones "explaining how this or that book is crucial reading 'in Trump's America.'"
In her 1976 essay "Why I Write," Didion says her work is rooted in a desire to investigate the "pictures in my mind," images that "shimmer around the edges," which explains her abortive sojourn to the Gulf Coast. Perhaps this sounds flighty and unanalyzable on its own, but the remarkability of Didion's writing comes from how she balances that instinct with specificity and precision; her details are not "random but somehow riveting"—they are riveting because they are not random at all, because they respond to that shimmering image in her mind as she attempts to support or (in the case of "Notes on the South") refute it. Writing, for her, is "an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions—with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating—but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space." She is dedicated to the "infinite power" of grammar, to appreciating how "to shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed."
This is not the voice of a writer whose greatest achievement is, as Flanagan suggests, giving female readers "quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair," aspirational Instagram photos masquerading as sentences; this is someone who is exacting and merciless. But Didion's particular appeal to women should not be discounted completely, either. In her recent n+1 essay "Writing for Rejection," Nell Zink tells of a kind of revelatory experience reading Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook for the first time, and I think its sense of relief and celebration can apply to Joan Didion as well:
I found no softened feminine world to nestle into, no glaring feminine omissions to overlook. I had thought aesthetic distance toward women, laced with tacit disdain (at least I hope it was tacit), was a part of me (a bad part), but it's not. It's a part of them—women, with their compulsive self-objectification. I don't have to make allowances for Lessing's being a former girl child with all that entails, a provincial autodidact, a lifelong exile from power, or even a woman in love. She doesn't cut herself any slack; why should I? She comes across as hands-down better than men at what, in her hands, doesn't seem like a man's game at all... She wins. It's her game. She makes every other novelist I know seem shallow.
This sounds like Zink is saying most women are bad writers, and it's kind of what she's saying. (She feels a lack of female role models who produce good writing, not because she thinks women are inherently bad at writing but because "our sexist world... limits women's experiences.") I don't agree entirely; I have spent the last two-ish years reading basically only women, not for some political course correction but just because I want to, and my sense is that many of the best female writers of the past didn't get to write as much or as freely as they might today. Also, because there are more female writers now, you are likely to encounter contemporary work that is middling but praised as great (perhaps as some kind of political course correction).
Like Doris Lessing, Joan Didion transcends both problems, offering an example of what a woman writer can do. But you could also put it in a less gendered way, as Didion did in 1976: "Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences."