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."
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."
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 on Joan Didion
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," Salon.com, http: //www.salon.com/oct96/interview961028.html (February 12, 2000).