Tag Archives: Joan Didion

Joan Didion and the Nature of Narrative

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The title of the new Joan Didion documentary, The Center Will Not Hold, can apply to any writer’s body of work: under scrutiny, does it hold? Now that Didion has published her final book, critics have started assessing her extensive body of work. At The Point, Paul Gleason takes his own look at Didion’s legacy, connecting her biography with her writerly interests. What Gleason sees is the realization of Didion’s own literary maxim that “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Readers often expect journalists and cultural critics to help clarify the stories of our time, but as Didion tackled culture and politics through the decades, she was also examining the unsettling possibility that there was no grand narrative, only a human need to make sense of disorder. Didion told herself many stories in order to live, about her family’s place in the mythic West, about America and the 1960s, about her relationships, and she also tore those stories down. To me, as a longtime fan of Didion’s nonfiction, it seems she told stories that were not only about her subjects or her struggles — she told stories that were about stories, about the ways human beings construct meaning from the potentially meaningless, chaotic nature of existence. Didion might, as Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote in Bookforum, have been “out of her intellectual range” when it came to large subjects like Feminism, but as a storyteller, Didion’s legacy has much to do with narrative itself and why we want answers, through-lines and resolution, and how we delude ourselves.

In the title essay of The White Album Didion insists that her cutting room experience had clued her in to something about the stories people live by: “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Her disillusionment with her own story, it seems, positioned her especially well to see through the self-deceptions of others.

In the rest of the collection, Didion charted the distance between Americans’ self-conceptions and the realities of their lives. In her essays young mothers abandon their infants on the interstate or, unable to attain the lifestyles they expected, murder their husbands. Jaycees wonder if campus Jaycee clubs are the answer to student unrest. An Episcopalian bishop rejects the divinity of Christ and chases the historical Jesus into the desert, where he dies of thirst. The national media treats the hippie lifestyle as a social statement, while the runaways and small-time drug dealers in the Haight-Ashbury district can’t tell the difference between militant anarchists and the John Birch Society.

Jaycees and an Episcopal bishop make easy targets for Didion’s acid irony. Of course the upheavals of the late Sixties threw respectable people like them into confusion, but Didion also criticized the wishful thinking of left-wing reformers and radicals. Not only do Hollywood liberals understand politics in clichéd story arcs, but they believe they can impose those arcs on American history: “Things ‘happen’ in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario.”

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Happy Birthday, Joan Didion

Joan Didion, in a moment from the forthcoming documentary
Joan Didion, in a moment from the forthcoming documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live

I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.

-Joan Didion, who turns 81 on Dec. 5, in a famous quote from Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Below is the trailer and Instagram account from We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the documentary of the beloved author, directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently in production.

Is W.B. Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’ the Most Pillaged Piece of Literature in the English Language?

W.B. Yeats. Photo by Wikimedia Commons

[W.B. Yeats’s 1919 poem] The Second Coming” may well be the most thoroughly pillaged piece of literature in English. (Perhaps Macbeth’s famous “sound and fury” monologue is a distant second.) Since Chinua Achebe cribbed Yeats’s lines for Things Fall Apart in 1958 and Joan Didion for Slouching Towards Bethlehem a decade later, dozens if not hundreds of others have followed suit, in mediums ranging from CD-ROM games to heavy-metal albums to pornography. These references have created a feedback loop, leading ever more writers to draw from the poem for inspiration. But how many of them get it right?


In the wake of Didion’s success, publishers have come to realize they can apply Yeats’s lines to pretty much any book that documents confusion and disarray. Thus Elyn Saks’s 2008 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, concerning her bout with schizophrenia. Though these four words from Yeats surely resonate with Saks’s feelings, the “center” in question here isn’t the moral authority of the Western world, it’s one person’s sense of stability. The trend has held for art books (David Gulden’s photography collection The Centre Cannot Hold), politics (The Center Holds: Obama and His Enemies), alternate history (American Empire: The Center Cannot Hold), popular history (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: The Battle of the Bulge by the Men Who Fought It), reportage (A Blood-Dimmed Tide: Dispatches from the Middle East), religion (The Second Coming: A Pre-Mortem on Western Civilization), international affairs (Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa), right-wing moral hectoring (Slouching Toward Gomorrah), memoir (Slouching Toward Adulthood), and even humor (Slouching Towards Kalamazoo; Woody Allen’s Mere Anarchy). It seems that for every cogent allusion (Northrop Frye’s Spiritus Mundi, anyone?) there are a dozen falcons that truly can’t hear the falconer.

Nick Tabor, writing in The Paris Review about the “widening gyre of heavy-handed allusions” to W.B. Yeats’s famous 1919 poem “The Second Coming”.

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Joan Didion Dismissed ‘Franny and Zooey’ as a Self-Help Book ‘for Sarah Lawrence Girls’

Joan Didion
Joan Didion. Photo: AP

In 1961, Joan Didion reviewed J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for The National Review. Or more accurately, she panned it. Two excerpts from the review are below:

When I first came to New York during the fall of 1956, I went to a party on Bank Street which I remember with particular clarity for a number of reasons, not the least of them my surprise that no one present wished William Knowland were running for President. (I had only been in New York a few days, and the notion that Democrats might be people one met at parties had not yet violated what must have been, in retrospect, my almost impenetrable western innocence.) There were a couple of girls who “did something interesting” for Mademoiselle and there were several rather tweedy graduate students from Princeton, one of whom intimated that he had a direct wire to the PMLA, baby; there was, as well, a stunningly predictable Sarah Lawrence girl who tried to engage me in a discussion of J.D. Salinger’s relationship to Zen. When I seemed unresponsive, she lapsed into language she thought I might comprehend: Salinger was, she declared, the single person in the world capable of understanding her.

Five years work certain subtle changes. I have become downright blasé about Democrats at parties; that particular Sarah Lawrence girl found that she could, after all be understood well enough for everyday purposes by someone else, an electronics engineer; and nobody, not even on Bank Street, thinks much any more about Adlai Stevenson for President.

The idea that J.D. Salinger is a kind of middle-class American guru, however, has somehow resisted those gently abrasive sands. Among the reasonably literate young and young in heart, he is surely the most read and reread writer in America today, exerting a power over his readers which is in some ways extra-literary. Those readers expect him to teach them something, something that has nothing at all to do with fiction.


To anyone who has ever felt over-
exposed to the world, to anyone who 
has ever harbored hatred in his or 
her heart toward droppers of names,
 writers of papers on Flaubert, toward 
eaters of frogs’ legs, all of this has a certain seductive lure; there is a kind of lulling charm in being assured in that dazzling Salinger prose, that one’s raw nerves, one’s urban hangover, one’s very horridness, is really not horridness at all but instead a kind of dark night of the soul; there is something very attractive about being told that one finds enlightenment or peace by something as eminently within the realm of the possible as tolerance toward television writers and section men, that one can find the peace which passeth understanding simply by looking for Christ in one’s date for the Yale game.

However brilliantly rendered (and it is), however hauntingly right in the rhythm of its dialogue (and it is), Franny and Zooey is finally spurious, and what makes it spurious is Salinger’s tendency to flatter the essential triviality within each of his readers, his predilection for giving instructions for living. What gives the book its extremely potent appeal is precisely that it is self-help copy: it emerges finally as Positive Thinking for the upper middle classes, as Double Your Energy and Live Without Fatigue for Sarah Lawrence girls.

Reading List: Leaving the Places We've Lived

Emily Perper is a word-writing human working at a small publishing company. She blogs about her favorite longreads at Diet Coker.

Everyone is writing about leaving New York, it seems. But Isaac Fitzgerald just arrived in NYC, and some of the writers in the delightful anthology Goodbye To All That have returned. Of course, there are stories of people leaving cities outside of New York. Here are four essays about leaving some of these cities, and maybe coming back to them.

1. “The Last City I Loved: Omaha, Nebraska.” (Gene Kwak, The Rumpus, June 2013)

I found myself floating in the details of Kwak’s friendships and favorite places. I’ve never been to Omaha, but now I want to go. It doesn’t need promotion, though — I just need to remember it’s there. And you just need to read this essay.

2. “London’s Great Exodus.” (Michael Goldfarb, The New York Times, October 2013)

Middle-class London residents can’t afford to live in a city where property is currency and international moguls move in.

3. “Farewell to the Enchanted City.” (Elizabeth Minkel, The Millions, July 2013)

A well-written meta examination on the classic Leaving New York essay: “But New York, though — maybe it’s the preponderance of writers here, the narcissism and the navel-gazing, that turns our comings and goings into a series of extended metaphors? … When we manage to leave, if we manage to leave, escape becomes a genre in and of itself.”

4. “Why I Am Leaving New York City.” (Mallory Ortberg The Toast, November 2013)

Let’s end on a lighter note: Mallory Ortberg (perhaps the funniest human on the internet?) hasn’t lived in NYC before, but she’s not going to let that stop her from writing an essay about leaving.


Photo: Don O’Brien

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On the 1988 presidential campaign:

Among those who traveled regularly with the campaigns, in other words, it was taken for granted that these “events” they were covering, and on which they were in fact filing, were not merely meaningless but deliberately so: occasions on which film could be shot and no mistakes made (“They hope he won’t make any big mistakes,” the NBC correspondent covering George Bush kept saying the evening of the September 25 debate at Wake Forest University, and, an hour and a half later, “He didn’t make any big mistakes”), events designed only to provide settings for those unpaid television spots which in this case were appearing, even as we spoke, on the local news in California’s three major media markets. “On the fishing trip, there was no way for television crews to get videotapes out,” the Los Angeles Times noted a few weeks later in a piece about how “poorly designed and executed” events had interfered with coverage of a Bush campaign “environmental” swing through the Pacific Northwest. “At the lumber mill, Bush’s advance team arranged camera angles so poorly that in one set-up only his legs could get on camera.” A Bush adviser had been quoted: “There is no reason for camera angles not being provided for. We’re going to sit down and talk about these things at length.”

“Insider Baseball.” — Joan Didion, The New York Review of Books, October 1988

See more #longreads from Joan Didion

Photo: cliff1066/Flickr

Possibly the best living American essayist and probably the most influential, Didion has always maintained that she doesn’t know what she’s thinking until she writes it down. Yet over the past decade, she’s been writing down more about her own life than ever before. If you want to know about her upbringing, readWhere I Was From, about the delusions of her California pioneer ancestors. If you want to know how she feels about the sudden 2003 death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, you can readThe Year of Magical Thinking,her stark but openhearted account of emotional dislocation. And if you want to know how she feels about the drawn-out death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, two years later at the age of 39, you can order her new memoir, Blue Nights, on Amazon.

“I Was No Longer Afraid to Die. I Was Now Afraid Not to Die.” — Boris Kachka, New York magazine

See some #longreads by Joan Didion