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.