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9 November 2023

The lies we tell about Joan Didion

The late author may be the most misunderstood writer in the American canon.

By Nicholas Clairmont

Here are some things I learned in Evelyn McDonnell’s new book allegedly about Joan Didion, The World According to Joan Didion:

Evelyn McDonnell lives in San Pedro, California. Evelyn McDonnell considers the California mythology around coastal living (“overdetermined, romanticized, privileged”) to “figure prominently in my own childhood mythology”. Evelyn McDonnell loves nature, “like Joan”. Evelyn McDonnell believes it is important to render the name of the 50th US state with a diacritical mark, as Hawai’i, though native Hawaiians had no written language before Western contact, the “okina” serving as a mark of deference to some locals’ pronunciation with a glottal stop before the final syllable. Evelyn McDonnell believes the literary phenomenon of which Joan Didion is the greatest exemplar known as the New Journalism was “primarily a revolution for white men”, and thus the New Journalism was in a meaningful sense the “same as the old journalism”. Evelyn McDonnell believes that when Joan Didion wrote her seminal essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and commented later that witnessing a five-year-old on acid “was gold” and that “you live for moments like that when you’re doing a piece”, it makes sense to describe this New Journalist’s reporting process by saying she merely “looked at [the world] plainly, and wrote it all down”.

What else? Evelyn McDonnell judges that Joan Didion’s politics are “sometimes blindered by privilege”, though she admits that “we want to be Joan Didion”. Evelyn McDonnell’s mother was born within one year of Joan Didion. Evelyn McDonnell “lived in New York at the same time” as Joan Didion, having moved there in 1988, “though she was an Upper East Side celebrity and I was a Lower East Side punkette”. Evelyn McDonnell has a tattoo of the Chrysler Building. Evelyn McDonnell identifies with Joan Didion’s idea that she “wrote in order to live”, and her comment that she “thought about the sea whenever [she] felt troubled”. Evelyn McDonnell thinks that “in a world where Stem is encouraged for girls, maybe [Joan Didion] would have been” an oceanographer – which I think would have been a disaster, since Joan Didion is the greatest American writer since Mark Twain.

More: Evelyn McDonnell really likes the film Lady Bird. Evelyn McDonnell thinks Joan Didion is a feminist (“Not a feminist, my ass”). Evelyn McDonnell, however, also “completely agree[s] that Didion needed some feminist consciousness raising”, and thinks that “when it comes to being an icon for women Joan Didion can be deeply problematic”, primarily due to Didion’s excellent 1972 New York Times essay that really serves as a rebuke of identity politics of all types, “The Women’s Movement”. Evelyn McDonnell had a first marriage to another writer that didn’t work out, but she is happily married to a carpenter named Bud now, and he built her a writing studio overlooking the ocean that she calls “Joan’s Ark”. Evelyn McDonnell is a self-described “water baby” who “know[s] beaches in New Zealand, Tahiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Spain, France, the Bahamas, Montauk, Newport, Michigan, Miami, and of course, California”. Evelyn McDonnell attended an Ivy League school.

Evelyn McDonnell is thus a biographer of the great writer Joan Didion who is not very good at reading, and who is pathologically self-interested. What she has written is not even a hagiography, but a sort of vibesography, organised in 14 chapters like a Pinterest mood board around images of objects, from “Snake” to “Building” to “Orchid”, each of which serves to tell the story of a loosely chronologically arranged section of Didion’s life around a theme, such as her phobia of snakes as a reading of her fraught relationship with her childhood ranch outdoor lifestyle as it demonstrates something like, for example, the fearlessness present in her writing.

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Around here, in an ordinary negative book review, one is supposed to find something positive to say to demonstrate intellectual honesty and to just not be off-puttingly nasty. Unfortunately, intellectual honesty demands what it demands: there is absolutely nothing good about The World According to Joan Didion, which is a shame for a book with such a good founding concept as using critical biography to discern the throughline of Didion’s actual theory of journalism and the world from her many disparate literary periods and successes.

[See also: How John le Carré infiltrated Oxford]

The writing itself is poor, such that the only good sentences in the book are in quotes. (“Joan Didion walked the world like a cat through broken glass,” for example, as written by Alma Guillermoprieto.) When Didion’s taut sentences themselves are quoted, you can feel your body physically relax from the juxtaposition in quality. McDonnell’s own prose is full of attempts at writerly trickery, but abortive ones that show a disregard for the actual meaning of words, such as when she writes that, “The golden dream was a dream of gold.”

Multiple times, describing lonely moments in Didion’s life, McDonnell leaves a fragment for emphasis, writing just, “Lone Didion.” This is the sort of breach of the grammatical rules that is allowed if you are absolutely sure it is going to hit, but leaves the reader cringing if it misses. Which it does.

Then there’s the factual detail, something which McDonnell is also sloppy with. McDonnell at one point describes the “flat lands” of California. When she “picture[s] the teenage Joan Didion alone in her room with a typewriter” (much of the specific scenage in the book is purely speculative), McDonnell portrays how Didion “hits the keys that leave the letters indented in black ink on vellum paper”. Vellum is parchment made from animal skin, and it is highly unlikely a girl who wrote diaries daily in 1950 would have used this expensive, unnecessary, and somewhat gruesome material. Sentences full of this kind of detail are what a teacher in grad school might encourage as good writing, but it is important that they be, you know, correct.

Like only a few other modern writers, such as George Orwell, everyone wants to claim Joan Didion. As McDonnell notes, after Didion died at the end of 2021, an auction of her personal effects with online bidding went morbidly viral, with fans buying even her empty, unmarked notebooks for thousands. This was the “cult of Saint Joan” in action. Another way to put this is that, culturally speaking, Joan Didion is passing beyond criticism. Which she would hate. Truly understanding and respecting Didion obviously involves admitting that she was capable of writing crap, or even of coming to convincing yet false conclusions, such as her downright conspiratorial views about CIA listening posts in Miami in her book Miami.

A major element of the process of Didion’s beatification is that much of her public impression is based on her style and image – including literal images, from the famous Julian Wasser photographs of her with the yellow Corvette that she sold in 1978 to the Gap ad she modelled for. Didion’s physical appeal as a tiny, unconventionally pretty, carefully photographed woman with a reputation as an entertainer of a circle of famous friends is also part of why men and women relate to her public persona in very different ways. A writer like McDonnell needs to reckon with this, and she gestures towards reckoning with it. But to do so fully would have required facing some facts that McDonnell is capable of mentioning only in passing if at all, especially about Didion’s political outlook. Yes, McDonnell mentions Didion’s early work for the conservative National Review, writing that its editor William F Buckley was “one of the few editors who saw past her gender to her talent”. And McDonnell admits Didion’s early support for the Republicans’ 1964 presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater. But the whole story is more complicated and goes beyond politics to the way the political and the aesthetic interrelate.

“Joan was in possession of this enormous fireball of talent” from 1968 to 1979, the years the collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album came out, the author and Atlantic staff writer Caitlin Flanagan said to me when I went to have gin and tonics with her last year and talk Didion after seeing the thesis-less mishmash of an exhibit “Joan Didion: What She Means”, curated by Hilton Als at the Hammer Museum.

Flanagan, a Didion acquaintance and America’s best chronicler of all things Didion (as well as arguably its best living essayist), feels that Didion never had a bad period as a writer per se, but that the magic of those years is undeniable. The Year of Magical Thinking was Didion’s biggest hit and won the most awards, but almost any lover of Didion’s work will ultimately talk about the work from that period as the thing that really clinched their love. Probably it was the influence of her East Coaster husband, John Gregory Dunne, in presenting the Didion-Dunne family to their industry and the world as less conservative than she really was that doused a bit of her fire once their world began to orient back towards New York in the late Seventies, first with an apartment purchase, then with a full-time move.

None of this is treated seriously in The World According to Joan Didion. McDonnell writes about Didion’s crystal clear expressions of political conservatism a little like right-wing Catholics write about Pope Francis’s progressivism: incoherently, and with a noticeable desire to move on as quickly as possible from a subject that so obviously demonstrates a contradiction in their core assumptions about the world. McDonnell admits the right-wing elements of Joan Didion’s work and self with palpable reluctance, calling her a “libertarian” instead when she can, while stretching to accentuate her left-wing elements – for example rereading her seminal 1991 essay “Sentimental Journeys”, about the Central Park Five rape case, as a social justice crusade, when it is better understood as an act of media criticism aimed at causing the reader to see the ways that dominant media narratives can form for cliqueish rather than truth-seeking reasons.

Ultimately, with literary and artistic talent, it does not matter at all what political outlook someone has, since the literary is so much higher and more important than the political. And anyway, a right-wing temperament or a left-wing temperament is not the same thing as specific support for Republican politicians, or Labour governments, or whatever. The point is that if you want to actually identify what is unique about a writer at the level of Joan Didion, you have to be able to think beyond right and left and even beyond right and wrong. You have to look beyond yourself. That’s something Joan Didion couldn’t help but do. And it’s something Evelyn McDonnell, I’m afraid, cannot.

[See also: How women were left out of the story of evolution]

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