The Collected Joan Didion: “She developed a writing style—collaged, skittering, rich in eccentric details and wary in tone.”

From a Wall Street Journal Bookshelf review by Donna Rifkind headlined “Where She Was From: The Collected Joan Didion”:

Joan Didion’s literary moment is now in its sixth decade. It began in 1968 with a book of essays called “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and is still ticking away, with releases of several new volumes of her collected work. Altogether Ms. Didion, now 86, is the author of five novels, 10 books of nonfiction, and a play, with additional credits as co-writer on about a dozen film and television projects.

In January, Alfred A. Knopf published “Let Me Tell You What I Mean,” a volume of fugitive essays from 1968 to 2000, and the Library of America has recently printed two collections of her canonical works, from “Run River” (1963) through “The Last Thing He Wanted” (1996)….As always, the LOA’s omnibus editions are well-upholstered objects, enhanced by excellent chronologies and notes on the texts. The second volume, out this week, contains some of Ms. Didion’s most arresting writing from the 1980s and ’90s, including “Democracy,” a political thriller with echoes of Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul, and California essays about Patty Hearst and the history of the Los Angeles Times.

Ms. Didion’s big subject is atomization: the sense that American culture over the decades has been shattering into pieces, making coherent narratives impossible. In response she developed a writing style—collaged, skittering, rich in eccentric details and wary in tone—that critiqued the societal fracturing she witnessed in tumultuous times and places: San Francisco’s Summer of Love, Los Angeles at the time of the Manson murders, Manhattan during the 1989 trial of the Central Park Five….

Provocative from the start, her sensibility earned her a position as one of the few women among the so-called New Journalists, a loose collective of literary swashbucklers whose members included Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Southern. Her voice has since become a touchstone for many a writing student, hard to imitate but easy to love. She inspires similar passion among detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. Some critics deplore what they perceive as the opportunistically leftward drift of her political writing over the years, while others detect snobbery and privilege in her observations about class….

For many she has come to represent an idealized projection of the literary insider as outsider: superior, uncompromising and free. To believe this, though, is to misunderstand the way writers function in general and, in particular, the way Ms. Didion has designed and been designed by her professional life. While clichés continue to insist otherwise, published writers do not produce their work alone. No important American writer has ever succeeded without plenty of administrative scaffolding and personal help from all kinds of people. And as she herself has made no effort to conceal, very few American writers have benefited more from this support than Joan Didion.

She wanted to be a writer straight out of the gate. A fifth-generation Californian, she was born in Sacramento in 1934 and grew up reveling in lore about her pioneer ancestors, some of whom had come west with the Donner-Reed Party in 1846 but split off from the group before it became trapped in the Sierra Nevada snows. The Didions were well-established members of Sacramento society whose politics, which their daughter inherited, was a western variety of libertarianism, contrary and skeptical. Amid Sacramento’s summer heat waves and winter floods, Ms. Didion developed a writer’s attraction to drama, calling it “a predilection for the extreme.”

When Ms. Didion was 5, her mother gave her a wide-ruled Big Five tablet “with the sensible suggestion that I stop whining and learn to amuse myself by writing down my thoughts.” By the time she was a teenager she was retyping paragraphs from Ernest Hemingway’s novels to study their effects. Later, at Berkeley, she struggled through a creative-writing workshop but found more success in her literature courses, where she learned to apply the close-reading techniques of the New Criticism to the novels of D.H. Lawrence and Henry James. Just before commencement, Ms. Didion earned first prize in a writing competition sponsored by Vogue magazine, along with a job offer. In the fall of 1956, at not quite 22, she moved to Manhattan.

Thus began Ms. Didion’s lasting association with the opulent and influential world of postwar American magazines. If Berkeley taught Ms. Didion how to read, Vogue taught her how to write. Its editor in chief was Jessica Daves, an innovator who sought to educate Americans in matters of taste. Employees were divided into “the verbals” and “the visuals”; as a verbal, Ms. Didion composed promotional copy, then advanced to writing captions. She learned to fit text to the magazine’s layout from the formidable editor Allene Talmey, who would ask Ms. Didion to write 400 words and then make her cut them back to 50. “Run it through again, sweetie, it’s not quite there,” Talmey would say. “Prune it out, clean it up, make the point.”

In time Ms. Didion was promoted to feature writing, where she contributed to Vogue’s unsigned “People Are Talking About” column, a hodgepodge of hot topics in art, movies, books and politics. Years later Ms. Didion would sprinkle these sorts of clubby cultural identifiers through her novels and essays as a taxonomy of class status….

During her off hours Ms. Didion worked on a novel set in Sacramento. “Run River” sold poorly, and Ms. Didion later disparaged it as a work born of homesickness. But it’s better than that, with hints of the highlights of her later novels, including “Play It as It Lays” and “A Book of Common Prayer”: dread-inducing atmospheres, thick with decadence and conspiracy; preoccupations with mothers and lost children; and an ear for dialogue as fine as any writer of her generation….

While at Vogue Ms. Didion began contributing pieces to William Buckley’s National Review as well as to Commonweal and the Nation….In the early 1960s she met a young journalist for Time magazine named John Gregory Dunne. He came from a large Irish Catholic family, had gone to boarding school and on to Princeton, where Donald Rumsfeld was a classmate. Dunne was a good writer, a spirited gossip, an inspired raconteur, and a hothead with a chronic temper. In 1964 he and Ms. Didion were married….

Whatever else the Dunnes’ marriage meant to these two thorny personalities, professionally they were indispensable to each other. Shortly after their wedding they moved to Los Angeles, where they pitched West Coast stories to a variety of magazines including Life, Holiday, Esquire and, most frequently, the Saturday Evening Post. Between them they wrote more than 50 pieces…which provided their most reliable income for the rest of the decade. They even shared a column, with alternating monthly bylines. Much of Ms. Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and some of her second book of essays, “The White Album,” began as articles she wrote for the Post, with topics as various as John Wayne, California’s Santa Ana winds, Nancy Reagan, and migraines. In the meantime the Dunnes became dedicated party-givers, hosting A-listers from Hollywood and the music industry along with literary friends and associates….

In the nearly 40 years of her marriage, Ms. Didion published nothing that did not receive a final edit—and often much more—from Dunne. She did the same for him. They discussed their articles and novels from first pitch to last draft. They traveled together on reporting jobs, and each helped the other with research. They collaborated on scripts for films and television, with one of them writing an initial pass and the other redrafting, Dunne said, until in the end no one could tell who had written what….

Ms. Didion has paid particular tribute to two other men who helped shape her career. The first was Henry Robbins, who was her book editor from 1966 until his death in 1979, first at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and then at Simon & Schuster. Robbins’s alliance with Ms. Didion made no separation between collegiality and deeply committed friendship. After he died, Ms. Didion titled a book of essays “After Henry,” in whose foreword she movingly wrote: “The relationship between an editor and a writer is . . . at once so elusive and so radical that it seems almost parental: the editor, if the editor was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it.”

The second man was Robert Silvers, the longtime editor of the New York Review of Books. Ms. Didion wrote her first piece for him, about the inner workings of Hollywood, in 1973….It is to Silvers’s influence that some critics attribute Ms. Didion’s evolution from a youthful Goldwater Republican to a fierce critic of U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan years and beyond. Yet she refutes the claim that she has tailored her politics to fit those of the magazine, insisting that she remains an equal-opportunity skeptic….

In 1988, after 24 years in Los Angeles, Ms. Didion and Dunne moved back to New York, where Dunne hoped to reinvigorate his career. He died of a heart attack at age 71 in 2003, followed 20 months later by the death of the Dunnes’ only child, Quintana Roo, at age 39. Ms. Didion remained alone in the apartment she had shared with Dunne, recording her grief in two bestselling memoirs: “The Year of Magical Thinking”…and “Blue Nights,” published in 2011. Her old theme of unmooring had never left her, but it surged again with personal urgency, and found a new readership….

It happened that, in the year of Dunne’s death, Ms. Didion published a book about California called “Where I Was From,” parts of which had appeared in different form in the New York Review of Books, Esquire and the New Yorker. In that book she renounced the myths she had absorbed throughout her childhood about her pioneer ancestors as the first true Californians….The revelation was provoked by the deaths of Ms. Didion’s parents, their absence freeing her to leave old assumptions behind

Liberating as it was, the loss of her parents left Ms. Didion feeling stateless as well as orphaned, and wondering, with touching candor: “Who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from.” While her achievements belong to her alone, this formidable American prose stylist found answers to those questions in the people and institutions that supported her talent after she left home.

Donna Rifkind is the author of “The Sun and Her Stars: Salka Viertel and Hitler’s Exiles in the Golden Age of Hollywood.”

Speak Your Mind

*