The Implacable I: Joan Didion and Those Who Try to Take Her Down

My journalism class was assigned to read "On Keeping a Notebook," an essay which appeared in Joan Didion's nonfiction collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. She wrote the essay in 1966, at the age of 32.

Her words are moving and genuine, marked by a bittersweet and anxious recognition of mortality. Alive-now-but-dying. There's always this moment, and this moment, and this one closer to the last.

Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. -Joan Didion, "On Keeping a Notebook"
With these kinds of lucid, heartfelt realizations that seem to characterize all of Didion's writing, both fiction and nonfiction, I was surprised to learn just how many writers have tried to take her down over the years.

I get it. Didion, who will be 81 next month, comes from wealth. She has always been skinny, frail, white. She has always been sensitive, overly aware of her surroundings, conscious of appearance and of aesthetics. Painfully self-aware. Always. She was raised Republican and remained Republican until life and knowledge changed her. She suffered from migraines. She dressed fashionably in an effortless way, in soft fabrics with clean lines. She drove a sexy car, a Corvette Stingray to be exact.

I get it. We like to hate these types. We get off on their suffering. We pooh-pooh their lives because it makes us feel better about ourselves and our own meagre efforts.

Anyone who writes an entire piece aimed at discrediting every aspect of another's life and legacy is likely jealous or miserable or both; or, in the case of Barbara Grizzutti Harrison, is perhaps projecting the rage and pain of having a cold and distant mother onto a stylistically cold and distant female writer: Didion.

We should save our time and energy on taking down serial killers and corrupt government leaders and members of the KKK. We should avoid doing the same to fellow writers, regardless of their flaws -- about which even they, if they are any good at their craft, are brutally honest.

Didion wears her flaws like badges of honour. This is the only way to handle them with grace. Be honest about them. Do what you can to work around them, or use them to your advantage where appropriate. But don't lie and pretend they aren't there.

Didion does not lie about her weaknesses and eccentricities. And some choose to hate her for it.

Megan Reynolds, a physical-opposite of Didion, recently wrote an article for Gawker, entitled "The Long Con of Joan Didion." In describing Didion's writing, Reynolds says:

There are constant references to her body and the space, however tiny, it takes up in a room. Her thoughts are so overwhelming that they threaten to consume her. The persona she's created in her writing leaps off the page and latches on to her thin frame like a succubus.
That's right. Reynolds refers to Didion's carefully-tended persona as a succubus = a seductive female demon who has tricked her admirers in the worst way: via sexual appeal and fearsome beauty. Reynolds does not deny Didion's talent for a second: "She's an excellent journalist and a crackerjack writer. ... Didion is no hack."

Yet, confusedly, the joke's on you if you are a Didion fan, Reynolds asserts. All those who love her work are "unwitting participants in Didion's game."

So what is it Reynolds is really speaking out against?

Yes, as a reader, my time with Didion has been short, but I have read enough to have been moved by her emotional and artistic honesty. She is not claiming to be anything that she's not.

Didion believes that we can -- and often do -- pretend that our interests are selfless, but everything we spend time on, everything we say, everything we write, ultimately comes back to "the common denominator of all we see" -- "the implacable 'I'."

We go to great lengths to state otherwise, but if we're being honest with ourselves, we nod when we read:

In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's 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. -Joan Didion, "Why I Write"
We can try to pretend. We can refuse to write in the first person, for example, or vow to never talk directly about ourselves, but no matter what, we are always trying to make sense of our experiences and our wants, our deepest desires and darkest memories. There are simply varying degrees and thicknesses of veils that we put up.

Didion wears precious few of those. Her masks are as delicate and fragile as her bones. She is not afraid to discard old masks, especially the ugly ones that no longer suit her.

In the late 1960s, her politics changed. She began to expose the brutality of big business and corporate corruption in her writing. She began to see with ever-increasing clarity the self-deception rampant in America, the same self-deception that keeps people from speaking out against iniquity, abuses of power, and unbridled greed. She saw through the ploys of politicians and the lies mainstream media often tells. She sought to be otherwise. She sought to work against these societal ills.

The dropouts and delinquents and druggies she once cursed became, to her, products of a broken system. They arrived at their positions through no fault of their own.

Instead of acknowledging this evolution in Didion's thinking, Reynolds encases a vision of Didion she hopes to disseminate to the masses: Didion as rich bitch, as wilfully spoiled princess, as deceptive waif. Reynolds uses her own writing-as-bullying to discredit someone in ways they simply do not deserve. It makes me wonder who the real con is.


References

Didion, J. (1990). Slouching towards Bethlehem. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Didion, J. (n.d.). Why I write. Genius. Retrieved from http://genius.com/8126588

Harrison, B. G. (1979, October). Joan Didion: Only disconnect. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/103/didion-per-harrison.html

Menand, L. (2015, August 24). Out of Bethlehem: The radicalization of Joan Didion. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/24/out-of-bethlehem

Reynolds, M. (2015, August 26). The long con of Joan Didion. Gawker. Retrieved from http://review.gawker.com/the-long-con-of-joan-didion-1726474476

(image 1 by Nancy Ellison, image 2 via Tonje Kristiansen)