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Joan Didion

Joan Didion

Although she is perhaps best known as a precise and graceful essayist, Joan Didion (born 1934) has also triumphed as a novelist and, with her husband, as a screenwriter.

Joan Didion was born December 5, 1934, in Sacramento, California, the daughter of Frank Reese and Eduene (Jerrett) Didion. As a child, Didion followed her father, an officer in the Army Air Corps and a World War II veteran, to military bases in Colorado and Michigan. The family ultimately settled in California, where Didion graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956.

After college, Didion moved to New York for a job as a promotional copywriter at Vogue magazine. Her subsequent moves between the east and west coasts of the United States have colored her writing. A contributor to American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, asserted, "A California native, Didion suffers the regional insecurities of those with ambitions defined by the Eastern publishing establishment. As the westward trek had weathered her ancestors, the journey back East tested her literary stamina and achievement without softening her Western perspective."

During her eight years at Vogue, Didion rose to the post of associate features editor and had begun contributing book and film reviews to National Review and Mademoiselle. She moved to California with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, to launch her career as a freelance writer. Despite a rocky start, Didion soon drew acclaim for her essays.

Reputation as Essayist

Much of Didion's most celebrated writing has been in the form of essays. Her first collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, was published in 1968. The book was a collection of essays that had been previously published in such periodicals as American Scholar, California Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post. As noted in American Writers, Didion, along with such writers as Norman Mailer, Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal, were hailed as "New Journalists," meaning the writers borrowed techniques from fiction to craft stylish, compelling non-fiction.

In her critical work Joan Didion, Katherine Usher Henderson observed that "in both her essays and her fiction, Didion seeks to render the moral complexity of contemporary American experience, especially the dilemmas and ambiguities resulting from the erosion of traditional values by a new social and political reality. To this end," Henderson noted, "she violates the conventions of traditional journalism whenever it suits her purpose, fusing the public and the personal, frequently placing herself in an otherwise objective essay, giving us her private and often anguished experience as a metaphor for the writer, for her generation, and sometimes for her entire society."

As Didion herself explained in an oft-quoted passage from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, "My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."

A second collection of Didion essays, The White Album, was published by Simon and Schuster in 1979. Also composed of writings originally published elsewhere, The White Album is named for the legendary, untitled Beatles album, which Didion said epitomized the 1960s for her. In the book, she recalled the months she spent in a psychiatric facility in Santa Monica. "By way of comment," Didion wrote, "I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968."

Didion didn't let psychiatric troubles scare her away from writing. Published in 1983, Didion's nonfiction work Salvador chronicled personal observations of a grueling 1982 visit she took with her husband to the war-torn Latin American country of El Salvador. The book "takes us on a journey to the heart of the Salvadorean darkness," wrote David Leppard in The Listener. "This is a powerful and highly articulate indictment of the pervasive political repression which has become institutionalized in El Salvador today."

Miami, Didion's 1987 nonfiction work, explored the intricacies of a city whose population, by the late 1980s, was 56 percent Cuban. The ripples stirred by Miami's volatile mix, Didion argued, reverberated throughout the United States, especially its government. The book is among Didion's most critically discussed, and incited passionate political debate. A writer for Magill Book Reviews, argued that "by concentrating so heavily on the Cuban exiles in Miami, Didion provides only a partial portrait of a complex city."

After Henry, Didion's 1992 nonfiction collection, is named for her editor, friend, and mentor Henry Robbins, who died in 1979. Released in the United Kingdom under the title Sentimental Journeys, the book showcased 12 essays. "About half this collection deals with such Didion standbys as California's earthquakes, airheads, and the mayhem found on what she likes to call the freak-death pages of the newspapers," wrote R.Z. Sheppard in Time.

While the book garnered the usual rave reviews for Didion's sharp eye for detail, some critics blasted her for relying on newspapers for her sources. "Didion works less with firsthand impressions, more with the texts that sift up from the culture," wrote Carol Anshaw in the Village Voice, "which gives these essays an air of imposed distance, rather than self-imposed detachment from their subjects."

Fiction Forays

While at Vogue, Didion composed her first novel, Run River. Published in 1963, and set in Didion's birthplace, Sacramento, California, Run River centered around the troubled marriage of protagonist Lily Knight McClellan. While the book received attention from large numbers of critics, a contributor to American Writers noted that "reviewers on both coasts expressed boredom with characters too afflicted by ennui."

Despite sometimes nasty reviews, Didion continued to explore the dark side of human nature with her novels. The controversial Play It as It Lays, was published in 1970. It became a bestseller and was nominated for a National Book Award. An American Writers contributor found the book thematically linked with Didion's cannon: "Suffused with the neurotic tensions inspired by her nonfiction prose, Play It as It Lays unsettled even her editor, Henry Robbins, who [said]: "It was a brilliant book but cold, almost icy. A devastating book. When I finished it, I wanted to call [Didion] up and ask her if she was all right."

Didion's third novel was inspired by a disastrous 1973 trip she took with her husband to a film festival in Colombia. Ailing in her hotel room, Didion conceived A Book of Common Prayer, the story of a Californian whose daughter joins a terrorist group in a fictional Latin American nation. The book was published in 1977.

Democracy, Didion's 1984 book, became a national bestseller. Still, reviews revealed critics' frustration. "Democracy," wrote Mary McCarthy in the New York Times Book Review, "is deeply mysterious, cryptic, enigmatic, like a tarot pack of most of Didion's work."

Published in 1996, the political thriller and love story The Last Thing He Wanted was Didion's first novel in 12 years. Set in the same, shadowy Latin American world as several of her previous books, it is the story of a middle-aged woman who takes her father's place in a Central Intelligence Agency scheme gone awry. "Didion explores the hidden world behind the political looking glass, the world of conspiracies, assassinations, and quasi-military operations," observed David W. Madden in Magill Book Reviews.

Like some of her earlier works, the book won more praise for its style than for its substance. "In the final analysis," wrote Paul Gray in Time Australia, the story "seems to say more about Rodeo Drive angst than it does about illegal foreign policies."

Scripting Spouses

Didion's partner in life and sometimes in work is writer John Gregory Dunne, whom she met around 1958. Married in 1964, the pair adopted a baby girl, Quintana Roo, in 1966, and spent 25 years in California. They have worked together intermittently ever since Dunne helped edit Didion's first book, Run River.

"Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are rare authors, able to move deftly between writing scripts for Disney and essays for The New York Review of Books, " noted Josh Young in Esquire. Together Didion and Dunne have written dozens of essays for publications including Esquire, Saturday Evening Post, and New York Time Book Review. They have also penned about 20 scripts, five of which have made it to the big screen, including Panic in Needle Park in 1971, A Star Is Born, the 1976 film that featured Barbra Streisand, and True Confessions in 1981.

The writers spent eight years working on a script for the 1996 film Up Close and Personal, which starred Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford. Writing about the late news anchor Jessica Savitch, Dunne and Didion battled with the movie studio and wrote more than 25 drafts before the film was finally produced, bearing little resemblance to the original story. Although Didion is by far the more famous spouse, she and Dunne seem to have a harmonious working relationship. "He reads everything I write," Didion told Lewis Burke Frumkes in Writer. "I read everything he writes."

Work Critically Dissected

While they can always find something to denounce about her writing, critics agree that Didion is a key contemporary literary figure. "Didion is one of the most interesting writers in America," claimed Vivian Gornick in Women's Review of Books: "a writer whose prose continues to lure readers high and low with its powerful suggestiveness."

A common complaint in early reviews of Didion's novels was that her female characters were more real than her male ones, argued Henderson in her critical study. "Didion's fictional women engage her immense talents as a realistic novelist; she draws each of them with fine, sharp brush strokes that reveal every dimension of their personalities, every connection between character and action," Henderson continued, "Although her men cannot be called flat characters, they do not fully compel the reader's credence, for their behavior is often inconsistent with their character as Didion has presented it."

Applied to Didion's prose, even that which could be criticism, sometimes winds up complementary. Anne Tyler, for example, wrote in the New Republic that "Joan Didion writes from a vantage point so remote that all she describes seems tiny and trim and uncannily precise, like a scene viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. That cleared space where she stands, that chilly vacuum that could either be intellectual irony or profound depression, gives her a slant of vision that is arresting and unique."

"Few writers move back and forth between the essay and the novel with equal skill and talent," Gornick concluded. "Joan Didion is one of them. In Didion, anxiety is an organization principle that has resulted in some of the finest essays in American literature, and at least one enduring novel, Play It As it Lays. "

Further Reading

American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies, edited by A. Walton Litz, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.

Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 52, edited by Pamela Dear and Jeff Chapman, Gale, 1996.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 32, edited by Jean C.Stine and Daniel G. Marowski, Gale.

Henderson, Katherine Usher, Joan Didion, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1981.

Advertising Age, March 10, 1997, p. 24.

America, April 5, 1997, p. 28.

Commentary, October 1996, p. 70.

Esquire, March 1996, p. 36.

The Listener, Vol. 109, No. 2806, April 28, 1983, pp. 23-24.

Magill Book Reviews, National Review, May 4, 1998, p. 32.

New Republic, Vol. 190, No. 14, April 9, 1984, pp. 35-36.

New York Times Book Review, April 22, 1984, p. 1, 18-19.

Raritan, Winter 1996, p. 122.

Time, June 29, 1992, p. 81.

Time Australia, April 14, 1997, p. 73.

Village Voice, February 28, 1977; June 25, 1979; May 26, 1992.

Women's Review of Books, December 1996, p. 6.

Writer, March 1999, p. 14.

"The Salon Interview—Joan Didion,", (February 12, 2000). □

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Didion, Joan

Joan Didion (dĬd´ēŏn), 1934–, American writer, b. Sacramento, Calif., grad. Univ. of California, Berkeley, 1956. Her works often explore the despair of contemporary American life, a condition she views as produced by the disintegration of morality and values. She is known for a cool and almost brittle style that emphasizes the concrete. Her novels include Run River (1963), A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Salvador (1983), Democracy (1984), and The Last Thing He Wanted (1996). Didion also has written screenplays (with her late husband John Gregory Dunne) as well as journalistic and critical pieces for such periodicals as the New Yorker and New York Review of Books. Among her books of essays the two most important are Slouching toward Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979), both groundbreaking analyses of contemporary life and culture that combine the personal with the topical. Later essay collections include After Henry (1992) and Political Fictions (2001). Other works include Where I Was From (2003), part memoir, part disenchanted revisionist portrait of California, and the memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), an account of the grief-filled year that followed her husband's sudden death, and Blue Nights (2011), the anguished story of her grown daughter's death.

See studies by K. U. Henderson (1981), E. G. Friedman, ed. (1984), M. R. Winchell (rev. ed. 1989), and S. Felton, ed. (1994).

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Didion, Joan


Nationality: American. Born: Sacramento, California, 5 December 1934. Education: California Junior High School and McClatchy Senior High School, both Sacramento; University of California, Berkeley, 1952-56, B.A. in English 1956. Family: Married John Gregory Dunne, q.v., in 1964; one daughter. Career: Associate feature editor, Vogue, New York, 1956-63; moved to Los Angeles, 1964; columnist ("Points West"), with Dunne, Saturday Evening Post, Philadelphia, 1967-69, Life, New York, 1969-70, and "The Coast," Esquire, New York, 1976-77. Visiting Regents' Lecturer, University of California, Berkeley, 1975. Lives in New York. Awards: Vogue Paris prize, 1956; Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1963; American Academy Morton Dauwen Zabel award, 1979; Edward MacDowell medal, 1996. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow and Nesbit, 589 Madison Ave., New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.



Run River. New York, Obolensky, 1963; London, Cape, 1964; NewYork, Vintage, 1994.

Play It as It Lays. New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

A Book of Common Prayer. New York, Simon and Schuster, andLondon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Democracy. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1984.

The Last Thing He Wanted. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The Welfare Island Ferry," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), June1965.

"When Did the Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was ItYesterday?," in Denver Quarterly, Winter 1967.

"California Blue," in Harper's (New York), October 1976.



Panic in Needle Park, with John Gregory Dunne, 1971;Play It as It Lays, with John Gregory Dunne, 1972; A Star Is Born, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1976; True Confessions, with John Gregory Dunne, 1981; Hills Like White Elephants, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1992; Broken Trust, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1995; Up Close and Personal, with John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson, 1995.


Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1968; London, Deutsch, 1969; New York, Modern Library, 2000.

Telling Stories. Berkeley, California, Bancroft Library, 1978.

The White Album. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1979.

Salvador. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Chatto andWindus, 1983.

Essays and Conversations, edited by Ellen G. Friedman. Princeton, New Jersey, Ontario Review Press, 1984.

Miami. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.

After Henry. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992; as Sentimental Journeys, London, Harper Collins, 1993.


Critical Studies:

Joan Didion by Mark Royden Winchell, Boston, Twayne, 1980, revised edition, 1989; Joan Didion by Katherine Usher Henderson, New York, Ungar, 1981; The Critical Response to Joan Didion, edited By Sharon Felton. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.

* * *

Though very much a California writer, Joan Didion is not provincial. She uses her immediate milieu to envision, simultaneously, the last stand of America's frontier values pushed insupportably to their limits and the manifestations of craziness and malaise which have initiated their finale. And while her novels invite a feminist critique, her understanding of sexual politics is beyond ideology. Each of her major characters struggles with a demonic nihilism which is corroding the individual, the family, and the social organism. Affluent and glib, her people endure a relatively privileged despair which may initially suggest a narrow purview. But a considerable ability to render social and physical environment broadly is saving.

In addition to dialogue which rivals Albee's, Didion's finest gifts are her talents for keeping clean of self-indulgence and for realizing a moral dimension in lives veering inevitably out of control. Certain recurring features of her work constitute leitmotifs germane to their interpretation. These include newspaper headlines, phrases from popular ballads, cinematic jargon, snakes, and the genteel Christian educations of her females. All pertain to the disintegration of an orderly past into a chaotic present, perhaps Didion's most irreducible theme.

Run River follows the eroding marriage of Everett and Lily (Knight) McClellan through 20 years. Concomitantly it chronicles the collapse of a way of life and the betrayal of the land which had given an epoch its apparent order. Ryder Channing enters the McClellans' lives when he courts Everett's sister. Though Martha never misconceives his selfishness and venality, she kills herself when Channing quits her. Lily's many unfeeling liaisons express her isolation from her husband and fatally draw her into Channing's increasingly nihilistic orbit. In his futile attachment to their Northern California ranch, Everett lives at a tangent to Lily's very genuine crises. When Everett kills Channing, it is not simply because Channing and his sleazy economic machinations are the wave of California's future, the perverse energy which turns redwoods to taco stands. Everett's suicide ends an era. But Lily's justifiable conclusion that Channing is guiltless, because he is a "papier-maché Mephistopholes," implies Didion's conviction that, however tawdry this interloper, he has only played upon a native tendency to ruin. Lily's survival implies her relatively greater, if tainted, adaptability and strength.

Play It as It Lays presents a culture beyond this metamorphosis. Consequently, it is set in Los Angeles where those tacky schemes of Ryder Channing are a fait accompli defining a whole state of being. Maria Wyeth's past is utterly disintegrated, her childhood home in Nevada having been detonated to oblivion by nuclear testing. Moribund, her marriage thins to extinction. With her brain-damaged daughter institutionalized and herself facing an abortion, Maria aimlessly drives the freeways to evade a ubiquitous dread.

Though Didion never politicizes abortion, she is morally obsessed with it. Lily and Maria endure the experience, but the treatment is fuller and more alarming here. A last straw, it pushes Maria closer to her counterpart and nemesis, BZ, another instance of modern demonic. Associated throughout with the serpent, this Hollywood Beelzebub tries with conscious nihilism to exploit Maria's drinking and sexual looseness. Maria's father, taking life as a crap game, had offered his case as a gambler and a cynic: "it goes as it lays, don't do it the hard way;" "overturning a rock [is] apt to reveal a rattlesnake." For Maria, this worldview is an affliction of passivity and anxiety, until she finally manages the small victory of rejecting BZ's invitation to join him in his successful suicide.

With A Book of Common Prayer, Didion suggests that the country is in the throes of metastasized California. So she invents an archetypal banana republic devoid of history. Boca Grande ("big mouth") yaps chamber of commerce propaganda and ingests North American residue. Charlotte Douglas, a San Francisco Pollyanna, weathers two difficult marriages: to a brilliant callous and cynical opportunist, and to a well-heeled radical lawyer. What she doesn't quite weather is the loss (à la Patty Hearst) of her daughter, Marin, "to history." Marin's situation is really very simple. She suffers from severe cases of banality and political jargon. But her new way of life tests to the limit Charlotte's too selective memory of the girl in Easter dresses. With the FBI agents who litter her house and the futility of her marriages at her back, she makes it to Boca Grande and a marginal life of good works for the suffering masses. She continues to put the best light on dark matters: stateside things like her brother's miserable existence on the old homestead in Hollister; Grande things like the Army's confiscation, for profit, of the people's cholera serum. She becomes oddly Sisyphean but holds out for the idea that we all remember what we need. Charlotte dies in the crossfire between Army and revolutionary forces, the guerilleros having decided that for once their insurrection is not going to be a State-sponsored melodrama. We come to like her and to wonder about the future of such folks as the Simbianese Liberation Army.

Democracy concerns the long and amorous liaison between Inez Victor, a politician's wife, and Jack Lovett. The latter embodies personal and social values lacking in and inconceivable to the husband, a Congressman aspiring to the presidency. Southern California recollected and contemporary Southeast Asia, particularly Kuala Lumpur, provide settings in which the fabulous quality of Boca Grande yields to realism. The novel clearly depicts American and international political life in the very fast lane, and its ruinous effect on familiar relationships. But Inez Victor's moral tenacity and practical resolve to use the past ethically distinguish her from Didion's earlier protagonists. Technically the novel is fresh, if not unique, for cinematic effects which break linear narrative; and for including a narrator named Joan Didion, who remarks the discrete functions of journalism and fiction, both provinces of great success for the real author.

With The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion's first work of fiction after 12 years of silence following Democracy, she returned to her familiar Central American/Caribbean locales and the political intrigue she had woven so successfully in previous books. The year is 1984, and the protagonist, Elena McMahon, seeks to carry out her father's dying wish: to bring in weapons, covertly supplied by the U.S. government, to the Contras fighting the Soviet-aligned Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The narrator is an unnamed figure, piecing together the story after the fact, much like the reporter who uncovered the secret biography of Citizen Kane. Hence Elena's motivation remains shadowy, yet the prose is as distinct and crisp as Didion's best.

David M. Heaton

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