Prescient and Precious: On Joan Didion

May 17, 2017 | 3 books mentioned 6 8 min read


I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.

Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written.  The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970.  The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.

The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:

I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.

This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy.  But was it so outlandish?  In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South.  Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not.  So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents.  Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater.  After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”

Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast.  One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.”  Here’s why:

There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff.  The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.

I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger.  I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong.  Later, Didion reports:

It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken.  Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?

My anger resurfaced.  What horseshit, I thought.  You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.

coverAfter reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point.  The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role.  Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing.  She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread.  As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.”  I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion.  She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences.  She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.

In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem.  Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.”  The operative words here are cool and empyreal.  “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences.  But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi.  There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.

At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:

The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold.  All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.  Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?

coverAnd yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.”  In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style.  The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”  Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.

This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.”  This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness.  Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust?  Or Henry James?  Or Virginia Woolf?  Or Flannery O’Connor?  Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity.  “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins.  Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.”  But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”

The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:

“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”

“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”

“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line.  One is conscious of trains in the South.  It is a true earlier time.”  And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”

“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river.  I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.  A sense of water moccasins.”

“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”

“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”

“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools.  Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality.  In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.”  In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar.  ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’”  In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.”  In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing.  I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”

In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony.  The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South.  Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics.  The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow.  Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance.  I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.”  Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask.  This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”

The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).”  That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.  With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”  The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars.  Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West.  But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. On the issue of Didion’s constructed persona, I think in the earlier work–Slouching Toward Bethlehem, for example–it is mostly a genuine mode of inquiry. In the essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” she is a lone intellectual figure in the wilds of Haight Ashbury, caught between addled hippies and the fuzz. That she stands at a remove is precisely the point–she is not a part of the thing that’s happening, a thing she tries (and fails) to make sense of. Tellingly, even in “Goodbye to All That,” she stands at a remove from her former self, a naive self she wants to understand better and has no real affection for. The cool affect is, in other words, largely a product of her journalistic project. But I do think she was praised enough for this affect that it became habitual, a pose, though again, perhaps that’s just who she is.

  2. Intriguing article! A few responses from a long-time reader of Didion:

    “Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not. ”

    What’s complicated about all that, of course, is the fact that the Democratic and Republican parties, by then, had, mysteriously, changed places, ideologically… as though Coke and Pepsi had started being sold in each other’s original bottles and “Coke drinkers” who wanted to continue drinking Coke had to buy Pepsi. Which was many decades prior to the next (even weirder) twist, which commenced under Clinton’s “New Democrats” of the ’90s: the parties fused (as though a mixture of Coke and Pepsi were now being sold as distinctly different drinks in both kinds of original bottles…)

    “There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.”

    This is merely an intended product of commercial writing’s mechanism: to put the target audience in the writer’s carefully-crafted shoes. The writer’s persona (what we call voice) is meant to appeal to, and match, the target audience’s sense of itself and the successful writer of articles for the New Yorker, for example, is not likely to be an easy fit for the mothers and fathers of Kimberly, Sherry or Deri… who were probably being catered to by personalities on talk radio (or the National Enquirer) while Didion was catering to readers of The Atlantic, The New Yorker or Esquire magazine (et al).

    A writer’s voice is not a “pose” in the ordinary (pejorative) sense of the word, in that it is inseparable from style and as real as anything else in the making of Literature can be… it’s only a fiction to the extent that all premeditated sentences are. But to draw a distinction between “(literary) style” and “style” the way I’ve just done for “pose” and “(writerly) pose”…

    re: “Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.” You mean, by that, I think, that a given style could not be less appealing to you. Which is probably what Didion meant by “absence of style”, too.

    Finally: what’s too often overlooked in Didion’s best pieces are her methodically subtle meditations on “how things really work” in the world; that “conspiracy theorist”-style of refusing to take things at Face Value (ie, how the easily-bamboozled rubes see things) may be the ominous hum you sometimes hear in the prose. In this excerpt from “Miami” (referred to by some as Didion’s “darkest” collection of essays), Didion is anatomizing something much deeper, and heavier, than mere bullshit:


    “There was no blacklist of Hollywood,” Ronald Reagan told Robert Scheer of the Los AngelesTimes during the 1980 campaign. “The blacklist in Hollywood, if there was one, was provided by the communists.” “I’m going to voice a suspicion now that I’ve never said aloud before,” Ronald Reagan told thirty-six high-school students in Washington in 1983 about death squads in El Salvador. “I wonder if all of this is right wing, or if those guerrilla forces have not realized that by infiltrating into the city of San Salvador and places like that, they can get away with these violent acts, helping to try and bring down the government, and the right wing will be blamed for it.” “New intelligence shows,” Ronald Reagan told his Saturday radio listeners in March of 1986, by way of explaining why he was asking Congress to provide “the Nicaraguan freedom fighters” with what he called “the means to fight back,” that “Tomás Borge, the communist interior minister, is engaging in a brutal campaign to bring the freedom fighters into discredit. You see, Borge’s communist operatives dress in freedom fighter uniforms, go into the countryside and murder and mutilate ordinary Nicaraguans.”

    Such stories were what David Gergen, when he was the White House communications director, had once called “a folk art,” the President’s way of “trying to tell us how society works.” Other members of the White House staff had characterized these stories as the President’s “notions,” casting them in the genial framework of random avuncular musings, but they were something more than that. In the first place they were never random, but systematic and rather energetically so. The stories were told to a single point. The language in which the stories were told was not that of political argument but of advertising (“New intelligence shows…” and “Now it has been learned …” and, a construction that got my attention in a 1984 address to the National Religious Broadcasters, “Medical science doctors confirm …”), of the sales pitch.

    This was not just a vulgarity of diction. When someone speaks of Orlando Letelier as “murdered by his own masters,” or of the WRHC signal reaching a people denied information by “Castro and his communist henchmen,” or of the “freedom fighter uniforms” in which the “communist operatives” of the “communist interior minister” disguise themselves, that person is not arguing a case, but counting instead on the willingness of the listener to enter what Hannah Arendt called, in a discussion of propaganda, “the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world.”


    That particular essay, from “Miami”, has a lot to say about an obscure character of historical interest, Guillermo Novo, and opens with this:


    Guillermo Novo was known to FBI agents and federal prosecutors and the various personnel who made up “terrorist task forces” on the eastern seaboard of the United States as one of the Novo brothers, Ignacio and Guillermo, two exiles who first came to national attention in 1964, when they fired a dud bazooka shell at the United Nations during a speech by Che Guevara. There were certain farcical elements here (the embattled brothers bobbing in a small boat, the shell plopping harmlessly into the East River), and, in a period when Hispanics were seen by many Americans as intrinsically funny, an accent joke, this incident was generally treated tolerantly, a comic footnote to the news. As time went by, however, the names of the Novo brothers began turning up in less comic footnotes, for example this one, on page 93 of volume X of the report made by the House Select Committee on Assassinations on its 1978 investigation of the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

    (67) Immunized executive session testimony of Marita Lorenz, May 31, 1978. Hearings before the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Lorenz, who had publicly claimed she was once Castro’s mistress (Miami News, June 15, 1976), told the committee she was present at a September 1963 meeting in Orlando Bosch’s Miami home during which Lee Harvey Oswald, Frank Sturgis, Pedro Diaz Lanz, and Bosch made plans to go to Dallas…. She further testified that around November 15, 1963, she, Jerry Patrick Hemming, the Novo brothers, Pedro Diaz Lanz, Sturgis, Bosch, and Oswald traveled in a two-car caravan to Dallas and stayed in a motel where they were contacted by Jack Ruby. There were several rifles and scopes in the motel room…. Lorenz said she returned to Miami around November 19 or 20…. The committee found no evidence to support Lorenz’s allegation.

  3. Didion is precious. She is white. She is elitist. Style was always paramount to her. As a freshman in college, 1972 or 1973, someone handed me a copy of The New Journalism, an anthology with “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in it with the comment, “This is about your home town, but I never believed you.”

    Seeing San Bernardino through her cool eyes made me realize that the printed word had more power than I had imagined, and that I lived in a place, came from a background, that merits the attention of a writer.

    Didion has worked hard at her craft, even copying out Hemingway’s stories word for word to get the rhythm right. We can’t expect her to represent our places in society, when she represents her own so well. She can only tell part of the story and knows it, knows her audience, and knows who will pay her for it. Why should she speak for us when she speaks so well for herself? Some of the rest of us, perhaps even that stylish girl she saw at Ole Miss, became the other voices. Reading Joan Didion help me become a writer.

  4. Hello, Bill Morris!

    I must disagree on the summation at the top. Didion is anything but “cloyingly precious.”

    Elitist? High-strung? Perhaps cold? Yes. But cloying, precious, or “over refined?” I don’t see it, any more than an ill-tempered overbred champion Arabian racehorse that kicks anyone who dares enter her stall is. As for the idea of “pose.” I think her distance and coolness may spring in part from the chaos of her childhood in California, moved from place to place, the mental illness of her dad, and what I am sure was a preternatural intelligence and awareness of this chaos.

    I can see that you might find the para on the gas station and her skittishness not your cup of tea, but I don’t think that is enough to begin building the foundation of the “perhaps fatal” preciousness argument.

    Will continue to look forward to your articles, but must join The Loyal Opposition on this one!


  5. @BillMorris

    Postscript: My No. 1 candidate for “cloyingly precious” is Ira Glass. There is a smugness, “not knowing or caring,” and lassitude that I find missing in Didion.


  6. Yes, and thank you. Perhaps an amen is in order, as well. I, too, can become ensnared in that glib prose so saccharine and thick like the dregs of poorly stirred Manhattan. Hold the cherise, Marcel.

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