What Would Joan Didion Do?

Last weekend, I read a GQ essay by Michael Chabon in which he escorts his teenage son to Paris Fashion Week. This sent me thinking about style and writers and fashion, and how these elements combine so well. One of my favorite essays of all time, also in GQ, is when Buzz Bissinger—known most well for reporting on small town football in his book Friday Night Lights—reveals his obsession with leather pants and Gucci while attending a runway show in Milan. Joan Didion never writes about fashion week in the same way these particular authors do, but she has always been closely linked with style “both literary and sartorial” (Vogue). Writing for Vogue is where Didion’s writing success first started, sure, but she has remained in fashion’s periphery. Annie Leibowitz shot her and Quintana Roo for a full page Gap ad in 1989. It was so successful that it was later chosen for an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery. More recently, higher-end fashion house Céline chose Didion as a poster girl. In Céline’s ad campaign, Didion wears sunglasses and does not smile, and while the campaign was successful, it pointed the conversation surrounding her toward how some think that “the conventional aesthetic appeal of Didion’s life sometimes threatens to overshadow her writing” (Stoeffel). I disagree.

Didion’s style, in both clothing and attitude, has always informed the way I read her writing—the two seem inseparable. I respect Joan Didion’s style the same way I respect Iris Apfel’s or Bill Cunningham’s (or even Anna Wintour’s). These are pioneers of specific lifestyles and arbiters of personal style that others look to for advice or inspiration. They are cool. Didion is cool. And she has always been cool. She establishes that she is in the know in “The White Album” and these perceptions of her still influence our (my) readings of her today. It is because Didion is so particular about how she presents herself and how her surroundings inform her own ability to experience the world—for instance, how “instead of gathering the new curtains, the decorator ha[ving] pleated them” (Kakutani) is the kind of thing that can give her a migraine—that she picks up on the radical particularities she is known for writing about. If Didion failed to notice the neighborhood, the vegetables, the drapes, her specific cultural indictments would mean far less. It is because she notices the small things that we can trust her to extrapolate their meaning onto a larger whole. When you are writing about a culture war, it seems important to be as perceptive as possible about that culture.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she writes about California in a Gothic way. She calls out phony culture, kitsch, thwarted dreams, and characterizes the San Bernadino Valley as a metaphorical Garden of Eden that has been corrupted by sin in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”—the characters she is reporting on are grotesque. California is decaying and, too, are these people she is writing about. The San Bernardino Valley, previously a symbol of the American dream, is watered down by people like Lucille Miller, people who could in theory “live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew.” The culture is becoming bland. This technique, though pioneered by fiction writers like Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner, could easily seem heavy-handed in a piece of journalism. How does Didion make writing in a dark way about dark things—a technique that could easily become cliché—not cliché? I think it is because of her style. She is able to write about the specific people and places in the beginning and end of her book because she has style, which she asserts most straightforwardly in the middle section of the book. There was dissent, in class, about why we had to read the second section of the book if it wasn’t really journalism. But in a way, Didion’s reporting is more honest because of these memoir-style sections—because she lets us see her bias firsthand and with no abandon. And so even though Didion uses reporting as a conduit for her Gothic interpretation of what happens in California, the essay has been well received by certain (many) audiences because we trust Joan Didion’s style.

This is a long quote from James Wood’s How Fiction Works, which is a craft book well-regarded by every fiction writer I know: “When I talk about . . . style I am really talking about point of view, and when I talk about point of view I am really talking about the perception of detail, and when I talk about detail I’m really talking about character, and when I talk about character I am really talking about the real, which is at the bottom of my inquiries.” Didion’s style is told through detail, just like this, and, like in fiction, can help indicate what she believes is real. Joan Didion’s ability to pick up particular details and have them then represent whole explanations, representations, etc. of people and things is what makes her work literary. It resists the kind of telling that traditional journalism is known for. Like Capote did in his novel, Didion shows instead of tells. The title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is told in vignette—she simply relays what she has seen, but chooses specifically which scenes to include . She guides the reader, certainly, but she ultimately leads the reader to decide (surely hoping that, since she herself has written to understand, that the reader will come to the same conclusions as her). As Herbert Gold notes, “the personal reportage of Joan Didion brilliantly evokes the starved privacy of Americans”—she is able to signal, to “evoke”, a movement instead of simply telling a story or simply reporting.

However, at the same time that Didion is writing in what I know as a literary tone, she has critics like Barbara Harrison lambasting her, calling her style “a bag of tricks” (277). She says Didion’s “subject is always herself” and that “Didion was not in truth engaged in reporting about Lucille Maxwell Miller [in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”]; Didion was reporting on Didion’s sensibility, which in this essay, as in all her essays, assumes more importance than, say, the existence of the electric chair” (277). What Harrison is condemning, though, is what we already know and love about Didion: she “uses style as argument” (278). We trust what Didion chooses to include because we trust her style, her approach to things. I would also argue that Didion’s decision to not include the electric chair—or other details—is literary, too. One of the most basic rules of fiction is to leave the reader wanting more, to make the piece you have written stay in the reader’s mind, and Didion has done that. Should she, as Herbert Gold considers of certain first-person writers, write fiction instead? Perhaps. And she has. But it seems the main problems with Didion’s essays stem from our own unwillingness to trust her style and to trust what she is doing. She has a plan, and we just need to trust it. We come to writers like Joan Didion to hear what they think. It would be absurd to shun her for it just so we could label her work journalism in its truest sense. I like Joan Didion not in spite of her radical particularities, but because of them. She is a woman who knows exactly the way things should be—even down to the curtains.

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