Book Talk: Didion — the center will not hold

Joan Didion, one of America’s great essayists, memoirists, and novelists, died two days before Christmas, 2021. During her life, she was a distinctive voice of both literary journalism (often called the New Journalism) and American fiction. She was, in every respect, a writer’s writer. Some literary critics referred to her style as “aggressive,” and Didion probably agreed. In “Why I Write,” she stated, “…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.”


Joan Didion was born on Dec. 5, 1934, in Sacramento, and she described herself, during her early years, as a “shy, bookish child.” As an “army brat” she did not attend school regularly because her father, a finance officer for the Army Air Corps, had to move frequently. However, at 18 years of age, she matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley. During her senior year, she won first prize in an essay contest that was sponsored by Vogue. That brought her a job as a research assistant for the magazine where she worked her way up to associate feature editor. While at Vogue, she wrote her first novel, “Run, River,” which was published in 1963. John Gregory Dunne helped her edit the book, and they married in 1964, forming a powerful and creative literary double whammy.


In a sense, her writing was brutal. For example, while many writers romanticized the hippie culture of the late 1960’s, she went to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and drew a disturbing picture of a counterculture of “aimless lives of the disaffected and incoherent young.”


The journalistic piece was later included in her book, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in which she described an encounter with a young child who had been given LSD (a psychoactive street drug) by her hippie parents. Her assessment of the culture of the times was that the “center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals.”


Two years later, she published her second work of fiction, “Play It as It Lays,” which became a New York Times best seller. It was the first of her writing that I read, and it was one of those books that stands out as a significant novel. She wrote it while she was working with her husband on a screenplay, “The Panic in Needle Park.” She and John Gregory Dunne also collaborated on several other screenplays, including “A Star Is Born,” “True Confessions,” “Up Close & Personal,” as well as an adaptation of “Play It as It Lays.”


Her works of nonfiction are regularly studied as textbooks for aspirant writers. In “The White Album” (1968-1978), she discusses her meetings with the Black Panther Party, a recording session with Doors, and an interview with Linda Kasabian, who testified against Charles Manson.


Didion’s range of interests was unlimited. But she was sometimes criticized for putting herself at the center of her writing. I think that’s because her writing was very personal, a journey of self-discovery that she shared with her readers. She was 87 at the time of her death. RIP.


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Jim Glynn may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.

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