I first read Joan Didion as a senior in high school. When you’re a teen with literary ambitions, Didion is who you turn to for inspiration. My copy of Play It As It Lays is well thumbed and dog-eared. On the inside of the front cover, I wrote my name along with the date I purchased it—an affectation left over from when I thought I’d turn into the kind of woman surrounded by books and great swaths of fabric covering slightly dirty windows, a tumbler of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette slowly going to ash in the other, gazing at city lights through the window.
For anyone that wants to write Things That Matter, Didion is it. Her prose is detached and styled within an inch of its life, full of a disembodied chill. It’s this chill that we strive for. She set the template for a new way of writing, a disaffected style, one that wears its fragility and delicate nature like a moth-eaten cashmere sweater. You turn to Didion to figure out how to do the work of writing. “Didion-esque,” in some circles, is still a compliment. She’s an excellent journalist and a crackerjack writer, whether or not you like the way she writes. Didion is no hack. She sits on that pedestal for a reason: talent is worthy of worship.
We admire Didion for her fragility, her sensitivity, her ability to persevere against the adversity of great loss. The writing—terse, detached, distant—telegraphs a carefully constructed weakness that she relishes in as a strength. This is where the problem lies. The work is inextricably linked with the author. Before personal branding was a concern that anyone thought to trouble themselves with explicitly, Didion literally wrote the book on how to do it well. In any public figure, it’s hard to separate the brand from the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Conflating a person’s public-facing self with the private is dangerous.
This much is revealed in Tracy Daugherty’s ambitious, doorstop of an unauthorized biography, The Last Love Song, which was released this week. It was written without Didion’s participation; for sources, Daugherty relied on friends of friends and her body of work, which, if laid bare and examined chronologically, already did the work for him. The book itself is written in homage to Didion. He writes, “Her work does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms. Any serious work about her should seek to do the same.” This makes for a pleasant reprieve from the usual drudgery of literary biographies which read at worst like Wikipedia entries writ large. Ultimately, his choice made the actual task of reading the biography feel like strange fanfic about the author’s life.
Here are the facts. Didion was raised by a family of conservative California Republicans in the Sacramento Valley. They were relatively well-off. In the 1962 Republican primary, she cast a vote for Joe Shell, because Richard Nixon was “too liberal for her.” She used her genteel, well-heeled background as her entree into the counterculture, observing the mess of late-sixties Haight-Ashbury and the weird, arid, schmoozy landscape of Los Angeles from a horrified distance, commenting on how dreary it was. She wanted us to look at the froth of the revolution and see it for what it was—a disaster, a dream that never came to fruition. We look through her eyes and are expected to feel repelled, just like she does.
She is a woman very concerned with keeping up appearances. Her preferred milieu is one of complete comfort, of French-linen tablecloths and Spode china plates. Daugherty writes of Didion and her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, being able to afford the big houses in Brentwood and Malibu, but never being able to afford valet parking. They were cash poor — the ultimate WASP badge of honor. This way of life is what she knows. It’s what she’s comfortable with. She doesn’t seem interested in knowing anything else. In her 1979 takedown of Didion and her work, Barbara Grizzutti Harrison wrote:
“Didion is like a latter-day Scarlett O’Hara: she will think about whatever it is she thinks about tomorrow when she dabbles her toes in her pool, all the while calling attention beguilingly to the hairshirt she has fashioned for herself . . . which may explain why so many male critics find her adorable.”
The “hairshirt” is her delicate nature. It’s a clear logline that runs through all her writing and Daugherty picks this up and runs with it. 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. It’s an entity that requires constant and careful preservation, the precursor to filtered Instagram selfies and carefully curated tweets. As readers, we want to believe that Didion isn’t the person she wrote into her stories, but the more you read her, the harder it is to separate the two.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” she wrote in her second collection of essays, The White Album. Your authentic self—the one that you put out into the word every day—is only as authentic as you mean it to be. Crafting a persona to put towards the public is difficult. The story she’s told herself and her rapt audience is one of a sensitive soul, unafraid to indulge in narcissism, expecting everything to come to her. In a devastating review of Play It As It Lays in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote:
“The ultimate princess fantasy is to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of…you see the truth, and so you suffer more than ordinary people and can’t function.”
This is not something to aspire to. Aspirations should aim high; they should strive for strength and for confidence and power. Aspiring to the heights of Didion’s delicate flower exterior feels like shooting yourself in the foot. It may seem like vulnerability, but vulnerability requires strength. In Didion, it’s there, but she never chooses to show it. What’s to admire about that?
To weather the unbelievable grief of her daughter and her husband dying almost simultaneously takes a reserve of steel. Yet, she relied on her perceived weakness as a way of getting ahead. She peddles the myth of a bird-boned woman that needs protection. She has headaches, she has pneumonia. She has ennui and writer’s block, and yet she still manages to succeed. Didion works out her weaknesses on the page, and we applaud her for laying bare her soul and we praise her for being real. Her restraint on the page is enviable, until you realize that it’s a disingenuous facade meant to curry favor. She is more successful than her husband was, and was fiercely competitive with him. Underneath the mohair blankets and the constant chills is someone stronger than she’d like us to think. We’ve all just been unwitting participants in Didion’s game.
[Image via Getty]