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Joan Didion’s needle-sharp eye never fails

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

Let Me Tell You What I Mean Joan Didion

4th Estate, pp.192, 12.99

Most collections of journalism are bad. There are two reasons for this: one is that they are usually incoherent and the other is that they are, perversely, far too coherent. The pieces are pulled from their original contexts — newspapers, magazines — and thrown together with others they have no relation to beyond a common author. But (the too-coherent problem) most authors only have one or maybe two ideas to work through, so you end up doing the intellectual equivalent of walking a dozen rounds of the garden when you had hoped to be hiking off into a grand new landscape.

I don’t know what Joan Didion’s one or maybe two ideas are, and I’m not sure she could even be boiled down to anything like that. In the essay ‘Why I Write’, from 1976, she describes her career as an act of obsessive compensation for a particular deficiency:

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Marianne Moore liked to draw a distinction between (less interesting) poems that conveyed a thought, and (more interesting) ones that portrayed ‘a mind thinking’. With Didion, you always get the mind thinking, even in the relatively minor pieces that comprise Let Me Tell You What I Mean — minor, that is, compared with The White Album or The Year of Magical Thinking. Everything here is an act of attention. Didion takes in whatever she sees and then turns it out in perfectly weighted prose, a craft she credits to her apprenticeship writing Voguecaptions.

A journalist describing Nancy Reagan pretending to pick rhododendron blossoms for a TV crew — which happens in the essay ‘Pretty Nancy’ — could have offered the scene up as a metaphor for the artificiality of political life (in 1968, when it was written, Nancy’s husband Ronald was governor of California). ‘I had the distinct sense that we were on the verge of something revelatory, the truth about Nancy Reagan at 24 frames a second,’ writes Didion; but the threatened epiphany passes, and the essay arrives at
a sort of luminous uncertainty.

Which is not to say that Didion reserves her judgment. She’s a pure product of California, but with a tough-edged immunity to west coast bullshit. In ‘Getting Serenity’ (also from 1968), she reports from a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, noting that a participant speaks like ‘one who had adapted her mode of address from analgesic commercials’. She ends the encounter repulsed by the scripted style of GA, and the insistence that members surrender to a higher power; for someone as intent on the singular encounter between self and world as Didion, all this smacks of people giving up responsibility.

Chronologically arranged, this is a brief volume, but vastly pleasurable. It even has an arc, despite its happenstance origins (if a writer as controlled as Didion truly can be subject to happenstance). It begins with an appreciation of the underground press from 1968 and ends with a close reading of the Martha Stewart media empire, published in 2000, so the collection brackets the metamorphosis of publishing over the latter half of the 20th century. Read as a whole, the essays cohere into a reflection on the business and art of being a writer. Even the pieces not directly on that theme are about style, pretence and observation.

The fact that Didion is writing as a writer seems keenest of all in ‘Last Words’, a deeply sceptical piece about the post-humous industry in Hemingway publishing. She treats this as a desecration: ‘The publication of the unfinished work is a denial of the idea that the role of the writer in his or her work is to make it.’ She was only in her sixties when she wrote that, but the force with which the point is made suggests the voice of the 86-year-old she is now — someone putting her literary affairs in order.

Writing is an act of dubious ethics, she confesses in ‘Why I Write’:

There’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.

The horror for writers, she notes in ‘Last Words’, is that ‘the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one’s own words in print’ — to succeed, they must surrender control by submitting to publication. There’s a deeply recognisable truth to that, but if any prose is proof against misapprehension, it’s Didion’s needle-sharp noticing.

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