Joan Didion Is The 'Ultimate Literary Celebrity' — But What Is It About Her Work That Speaks To So Many People?
She’s a writer who’s been called the ‘ultimate literary celebrity’ and ‘fashion’s favorite icon’; she’s one of the most influential essayists of her generation; she's a literary legend; she's woman who embodies that classic, old school definition of what it means to be 'cool.' She’s been the subject of her own documentary. She’s one of the most written about writers of contemporary nonfiction, a woman for whom profound loss and great success have gone hand-in-hand. Joan Didion is, in many ways, the writer every writer wants to be — at least on the page. And that’s why those of us who love her will never stop obsessing over her. (In fact, those of us who hate her may never stop obsessing over her either.)
I first discovered Joan Didion while searching for a female Hunter S. Thompson, so to speak — a confession that essentially sums up the entirety of my reading and writing life. The White Album was my first foray into Didion’s world of cool, which I’m sure informed my relationship with her writing forever. The White Album, an essay collection published in 1979, begins with Didion sitting on the floor of a Los Angeles recording studio, taking notes while The Doors wait for Jim Morrison to quit goofing off and get down to music-making — something I spent my teens and twenties wishing, with the entirety of my heart, that I’d been alive to do too. Didion is, without question, the only person on earth who can sit in a Los Angeles recording studio with The Doors and be the coolest person in the room. And then write about it.
But the 'cool' factor of Joan Didion hardly begins and ends with her public, albeit distant, persona: The glamour of her over-large sunglasses, the near-impossibility of finding a photograph of her smiling, the intensity of her gaze, her ability to represent both coasts, the fact that she’s a woman seemingly unaware of her own celebrity. None of this, of course, matters without the writing. And the writing, above all else, is the coolest thing about her.
As a pioneer of the New Journalism style — and, in fact, the only woman who consistently stands alongside New Journalism powerhouses like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and, yes, Hunter S. Thompson himself — Didion was first known for her immersive reporting, a journalist whose subtle presence in her own reportage was critical to the telling. In both Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Didion writes with neither the intimacy of memoir, nor the objectivity of journalism. She is present, but distant; observant while still influential. She’s on the page just enough to keep you wanting more — not just of the writing, but of the writer as well.
None of this, of course, matters without the writing. And the writing, above all else, is the coolest thing about her.
At the same time, her cultural observations are both sharply specific and universal. She’s affected by her time and place in history, if underwhelmed. Though plagued by ennui, she finds all that is worth documenting in her environment. The end of the 1960s in Los Angeles is an iconic moment in American history in part because Joan Didion deemed it worthy of recording. "Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable," Didion writes, of that time. "This mystical flirtation with the idea of “sin"–this sense that it was possible to go "too far”, and that many people were doing it–this was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full."
If anyone in American letters is the voice of 1960s California, it’s Joan Didion. As Hannah Horvath so self-importantly observed at the beginning of Girls, all we writers yearn to be the voice of our generation, usually without achieving it. Joan Didion, in contrast, achieved it without any of the obvious yearning. (The voices that, in turn, did not come to represent the end of 1960s America, notwithstanding. Didion has, for all her merits, been critiqued as an ‘elitist’ for this very reason, and in many ways her writing undoubtedly is.)
"She’s affected by her time and place in history, if underwhelmed. Though plagued by ennui, she finds all that is worth documenting in her environment."
Didion is also a woman who has stared into the face of profound loss — not once, but twice — and survived. Among her most famous works are The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, memoirs that document the experiences of suddenly losing first her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then just two years later, her 39-year-old daughter Quintana Roo. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…”, which Didion wrote rather prophetically in The White Album, has become a rallying cry of writers everywhere — perhaps equaled only by Cheryl Strayed’s “write like a motherf*cker." They’ve certainly adorned a similar number of coffee mugs.
But her ability to document such earth-shattering grief without any hint of sentimentality is a testament to Didion’s mastery of her craft — and her keen, almost indignant, observations about the journey of loss are what transformed her from an icon of writers’ workshops to the kind of writer whom one’s drug dealer would be just as likely to read as one’s grandmother. "We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock," she writes, in The Year of Magical Thinking. "We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes."
"But her ability to document such earth-shattering grief without any hint of sentimentality is a testament to Didion’s mastery of her craft."
There is no better example of Didion telling her story in order to live than these two texts.
And this is, perhaps, what is coolest of all about Didion — the fact that, on the page, she is both the young woman who filled a notebook while seated at the feet of The Doors and the wife and mother who buried her husband and child. There’s nothing ‘cool’ about losing your family, for sure; but there is something profoundly badass about documenting that loss in a way that expands what it means to lose in the first place. This is the essential genius of Didion’s writing: it’s restrained in a way that is freeing, specific in a way that expands the experience for us all.