Overrated Writers, Part Two: Joan Didion

Call it sacrilege … I just can’t get behind this Joan Didion craze. She wins the second position on the Litkicks Overrated Writers List of 2006.

Joan Didion is a skillful and smart writer. But I’ve always considered her a quintessentially cold author, the epitome of the jaded, detached modernist. I once tried hard to read her most acclaimed novel, Play It As It Lays, because somebody told me it was great. I couldn’t get to first base with this book. The sentences were sharp and the transitions were slick, maybe too slick, because my attention kept glancing off the brushed-steel surface of Didion’s gleaming prose.

It was all cool anomie, all tone and attitude. Here’s a typical passage from Play It As It Lays:

We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody’s second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.

That’s nicely phrased, and it would work well as the setup for an exciting plot. But as I read on, it began to sink in that paragraphs like this were the plot. The book was an exercise in boredom, an exquisite portrait of nothingness. Here’s how the teaser text on the book’s jacket describes the main character: “Maria is an emotional drifter who has become almost anesthetized against pain and pleasure”.

That’s supposed to be a selling point? Not for this reader. I see emotional sterility all around me. I read books to cure this condition, not to reinforce it.

Of course, readers who love Joan Didion love her because she is the way she is, and they probably also love Don DeLillo and Lydia Davis and any number of other subtle, precise minimalists. The reason Ms. Didion makes my top five list in 2006 is that she just published what is probably the best book of her long career, The Year of Magical Thinking, a raw memoir about the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, and the severe illness of her daughter. This successful book has catapulted her literary status into a higher orbit, but I can’t stand idly by with my mouth shut when people start to portray her as the second coming of George Eliot or Virginia Woolf.

I read a long excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking in the New York Times Magazine, and I was very impressed by the piece. But it’s an uncharacteristic Joan Didion work precisely because it does pack a punch. For once, Didion really plays it as it lays. Elsewhere, you get a lot of indirection and suggestion. She’s the type of author who tells us she once had a nervous breakdown (which she describes as a case of “vertigo and nausea”, in her essay The White Album) as an aside by including the full text of a doctor’s note.

The Year of Magical Thinking also turns out to be a work of non-fiction, which has always been Didion’s forte. But even her essays are underwhelming. Her turns of phrase may be stylistic marvels, but she lacks the distinctive message of a Susan Sontag or Camille Paglia or the signature voice of a Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe. She’s a hardworking professional, like Malcolm Gladwell or Janet Malcolm, but that’s not the same thing as being a literary genius.

In a Rolling Stone interview many years ago, John Irving cited Neil Young as a creative influence because “he’s not afraid to embarrass himself.” I don’t think Joan Didion has ever embarrassed herself. I do not believe she has the heart of a great writer.

* * * * *

Enough about Saint Joan of California. Tomorrow’s overrated writer promises to be a controversial choice, because many smart people I know like this author. Hint: I wouldn’t hurt a guy with glasses, would I? Yeah, I would.

16 Responses

  1. Joan Didion in the Paris
    Joan Didion in the Paris Review

    I read a Joan Didion interview in the Paris Review where her way of writing was described. She writes and rewrites and rewrites like an obsessive-compulsive, like a persons who can’t help but do the same action over and over again. She said that she did not rewrite her last book in this way.

    About tomorrow’s writer… I have an idea… would it be V.S …?

  2. That’s an interesting guess,
    That’s an interesting guess, Mila — you’ll have to wait and see!

    Interesting point that Didion wrote this last book differently than the others. I guess that’s one reason I liked it.

  3. Oh Snap! No You Ditn’!The
    Oh Snap! No You Ditn’!

    The first piece by Joan Didion that I ever read was “Goodbye to All That” which is probably the best piece anyone could hope for to be introduced to Didion. I’ve been a devoted fan ever since.

    To say that Didion doesn’t have the heart of a writer is like saying Sylvia Plath didn’t have the heart of a poet.

    I find her observations to be the opposite of cold. She reveals feelings and thoughts that make me feel embarassed for her as I read them. Not because they’re stupid, but because they’re so revealing. I find her revelations to be almost syrupy at times and warm to the core. If anything is missing from Didion’s work, it’s a sense of humor. She is no doubt a grave observer. I love all of her essays so much that I read them over and over.

    I haven’t gotten into her novels because novels don’t interest me that much. But if one is a stinker, I don’t think that negates her writing as a whole. I love Bukowski, but Pulp was a terrible novel.

    I also loved The Year of Magical Thinking despite the fact that it was profoundly depressing. Saint Joan’s writing displays the isolation and depression that characterize all of my most favorite writers.

  4. It’s good to see an opposing
    It’s good to see an opposing viewpoint in this mix.

    Once again, I haven’t read the author in question. What is wrong with me?? I hope I’ve read at least one writer on this list.

    As for tomorrow … surely not Vonnegut!

  5. You struck a chord when you
    You struck a chord when you mentioned that Pulp stinks. Boy, does it ever. I love all the rest, though.

  6. Pelerine, I appreciate your
    Pelerine, I appreciate your response. Hey, they wouldn’t be overrated writers unless some people liked them, right?

    Bill — yeah, what the hell is wrong with you? But no, I couldn’t think of something bad to say about Kurt Vonnegut if I tried.

  7. Opinions, yes; everybody has
    Opinions, yes; everybody has one about Joan Didion, even those who haven’t read her novels Democracy and Salvador or even Run River. I love her style, her wit, even her cynicism and seemingly flat affect. Experience and writing about the experience tends to leave one’s nerve endings blunted or frayed. When I recently discovered that Joan’s books had gone to the Friends of the Library by mistake, I rushed out to find used, dog-eared copies with some sharp marginalia and highlighted passages; I was happy that some other person read and enjoyed her stuff.

  8. Art Schlesinger, of whom she
    Art Schlesinger, of whom she was a long time enemy, probably dating back to her pro Goldwater days, had a low opinion of her and her husband Dunne. That’s enough for me.

  9. I know you wrote this 15 years ago, but I’m happy nonetheless that it lives on the Internets.
    YofMT was the most self-indulgent romp of the fabulous WASP existence she enjoyed for decades, cast through the prism of her grief. All you need to know about Joan is in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” In that tome, she essentially says that writing is about the writer, not the people they write about. How effing tragic is that? She looks down at her subjects as if they were, well, subjects.

    There are way too many smart voices needing to be heard today. Leave her laying where she is.

  10. That is for this! I’m very tired of all the praise and gushing over her, now that she’s dead. She was an anorexic (adopted her daughter because she didn’t want to gain weight with pregnancy), alcoholic, chain-smoker (but so many writers were), treated Dominick Dunne horribly when his daughter was murdered, and while a great essayist, not a good screen-writer.

  11. “There are way too many smart voices needing to be heard today. Leave her laying where she is.” AMEN. Thank you. A voice of reason on Didion, finally (and they are few and far between, sadly). I have never been more baffled by the blind adoration this woman receives the world over. It’s like a case of the emperor’s new clothes, when I see the endless gushing reviews. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Adjectives that spring to mind when I think of her: narcissistic, boring, empty, cold, self-important.

  12. Thanks for your observation which mirrors my own. I was mystified by the hype around Didion after reading her. It’s all self absorbed name dropping which belies the idea that she’s cool. Her work is lifeless and I forced myself to finish it in an effort to be fair but it made me wish I had that time back.

  13. I felt I had to read Didion after I heard she died. I could not make it half way through blue night. Pretentious, self absorbed, banality. The champing and mouthing of hats and Chanel dresses.

  14. Lord thank you. I’m trying to get through the Year of Madrigal Singing and I honestly believe Joan had Asperger’s. Nothing wrong with that of course – it’s a detached style that may appeal to some. To me it’s just a clinical study of what grief is – without all those fuzzy complications like human connection. It’s hard cold marble. There’s more ardor for her career – while what should be emotional content is reduced and tamped down to medical regimens and the routines of a life together – without really delving into human connection. It’s as if written by proxy. A healthcare proxy in this case with miles of meaningless medical data unconnected to who her daughter really was – while also skirting the chronic alcoholism that probably caused her health woes.

    It’s one of my most disappointing reads as I had heard so much about the book and author.

  15. I found you because I was looking for someone who didn’t like Joan Didion’s writing.

  16. Yes, she’s too cool. I think her best piece is the stuff about Manson precisely because she almost seems to admit that the cool people got carried away and look what happened …

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