Becoming Joan Didion
by Michelle Dean
“Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors,” Ernest Hemingway once wrote, with typical pugnacity. But are the critics sometimes right? In this occasional series we’ll examine the early careers of now-beloved authors to see what the critics first made of them.
Every profile of Joan Didion begins the same way: some quasi-poetic observation of the slight figure she cuts out there in the world, seguing to a contrast with what has often been called the “steely” quality of her prose. (Most hilariously awkward of these: a 1970 Los Angeles Times profile that tries to sustain an extended metaphor of the “haunted elf.”) So used are we to this way of talking about Didion that we assume it must always have been so. The hallmark of the icon is an aura of inevitability, and indeed it’s hard to think of a more charmed early career than hers. She went to Vogue at 21, after winning the famed Prix de Paris, a “$1000 or a week in Paris” essay prize that, just five years earlier, Jacqueline Bouvier had won. A perk of the prize was that “entrants [were] automatically screened for their qualifications as future employees” of Condé Nast. And so, by 1960, Didion had worked her way onto the masthead as a features editor, and within a year of that was writing short essays under her own byline.
But her columns for the magazine came about, more or less, by happenstance and exigency. She told her friend, the journalist Sara Davidson, that her famed essay “On Self-Respect” — the second of these columns — was written impromptu, thrown together in two days to fill space intended for another writer on that subject. And there you have it: even then Didion was a writer who could produce something in 48 hours that your sophomore-year roommate wouldn’t quit quoting for years.
No doubt something similar happened with her first Vogue byline. It was a piece on jealousy, published in June 1961, which has never been reprinted in any of Didion’s books. (Sorry, Didion completists: it’s not available online, as far as I know.) In it she identifies the strongest jealousies as those we harbor for the people we don’t know, including the “golden girl.” Didion sees jealousy as devouring, but predicated on contradiction: “To be jealous is alternately to hate and to adore the object of that jealousy: hate for rejecting me, adore for unavailability, for all too apparent desirability, and finally for consummate good taste in rejecting something as worthless as me,” she added. Was she presaging her own historically chilly responses to adoring fans? I suppose we’ll never know.
In 1963, she published her first novel, Run River (sometimes Run, River, due to a comma-zealot of an early English publisher), which told the story of Lily, a woman not terribly unlike Didion, with a princess-like upbringing in a prominent Sacramento family. The novel received few notices — the New York Times, for instance, chose not to review it at all — and some were outright bad. “As California wines are designated by the European type they most resemble, so much California novels be named for the established novelists they simulate. In which case this is Faulkner type,” wrote one Guy E. Thompson of the Los Angeles Times. “Many consider the California product less robust than the original — so will readers.”
The New Yorker gave it some guarded praise but was less than enthusiastic:
Miss Didion’s first novel shows her to be the possessor of a vigorous style that is wasted on her characters… Miss Didion writes of people who get through life instead of living it, but her book gives promise of what she can do when she settles down to dealing with men and women instead of being content to describe human leftovers.
It’s too bad the editorial is unsigned; it would be nice to know who wrote it and if that same critic ever reviewed Didion’s nonfiction, first collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem in 1968. Didion had hardly abandoned the “human leftovers” theme, instead settling right down into it. The book’s reported essays are about the unmoored of 1960s California: hippies, murdering wives, Joan Baez’s rather ephemeral Center for the Study of Nonviolence.
Didion had by then left Vogue and moved with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to California. There, the two wrote their famed columns for the Saturday Evening Post. They had adopted their daughter Quintana and lived in a house near Malibu with an ocean view. The Didion-Dunnes plunged headlong into their screenwriting years, though they would not have a screenplay produced until The Panic in Needle Park appeared in 1971.
It was by all appearances a happy time. That Slouching Toward Bethlehem was received far more effusively than Run River only helped cement that perception. No one worried any longer that Didion had chosen the wrong people to write about. The changing times made her sense of moral chaos more palatable. But even though critics found much to praise in the collection, they were struck by the aura of dread hanging over every paragraph, now such a commonplace of writing on Didion (and so much writing derivative of Didion), but back then still new and disconcerting. The Chicago Tribune’s Janet Coleman, billed as a “critic and off-off-Broadway actress,” sniffed a bit at what she saw as Didion’s nostalgia for a rosy American childhood whose truth Coleman doubted. “‘[H]ome’ and ‘family,’” Coleman wrote, “certainly did not prepare Miss Didion’s generation to meet life easily or happily. Nor did they save her from the nervous breakdown she tells us ‘eight years in New York’ caused.” Later, in Where I Was From, Didion appeared to agree: “the inchoate intent of [Run River] was to return me to a California I wished had been there to keep me.”
Others were less wowed. A Kirkus reviewer noted that though she was a “talented scene surveyor,” “Miss Didion is no female Tom Wolfe.” (One can only admire the restraint that must have prevented some editor along the way from adding a comma and “thank god.”)
That said, while the majority of the reviews of Slouching were positive, even glowing, undermining notes crept into some. Critics seemed eager to comment on Didion as a woman. Melvin Maddocks, in the Christian Science Monitor, allowed that she’s an “original observer and even better, an original thinker,” but veered into philosophizing:
Journalism by women is the price the man’s world pays for having disappointed them. Here at their best are the unforgiving eye, the unforgiving ear, the concealed hat-pin style.
Too right. I’m always picking up my hat-pin instead of my pen. They just look so similar! Maddocks continued:
But behind this poses the Joan Didion we might have had if we deserved her: the quiet, round-eyed child full of California hope who idolized John Wayne and could still respond — if only she ever ran across it — to old fashioned wagon-train idealism.
At times, the woman journalist of sensibility with her brittle nerves, her air of literary semiinvalidism, seems to be the 20th-century version of feminine ‘delicacy.’ But Miss Didion is far tougher than a case for the smelling salts, and so is her work.
The New York Times delivered an almost wholly unqualified rave. Dan Wakefield quibbled that Didion was “not as smoothly disgestible as Theodore White (the ‘President Making’ one),” a comparison that rather clunks off the curb today.
Whatever the minor nitpicks, Slouching Towards Bethlehem would be the book that would ultimately get Didion nominated by the Los Angeles Times as a Woman of the Year for 1968. (Nancy Reagan and Greer Garson were fellow honorees.)
But in the essay “The White Album,” Didion would later memorialize this time as a period shortly preceded by a “wave of vertigo and nausea,” part of a breakdown she attributed to her loss of a sense of meaning. “I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical,” she remembered. The narrative of her own success was not exempt; she was not able to enjoy the acclaim. She had to view it from great and thoroughly wind-chilled heights.
Which is perhaps what the aspiring-Didions out there ought to take away. So many want the high praise, the Great Writer title undisputed and unanimous. But blessings are as blessings do. Even the highest accolades will not smooth out every wrinkle in a tortured soul. After all, to be blessed is not, necessarily, to feel that you deserve it.