Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 13, 2012 8:19AM

Note to Caitlin: Joan Didion Is Not Your BFF

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There’s no doubt that Joan Didion is a lightning rod for women writers of my generation. In fact, she’s been a skinny pole defying the whole big thundering sky of publishing and journalism for the past five decades.

With Didion, you love her or you hate her or you have decidedly mixed feelings about her work—as I do. But until I read Caitlin Flanagan’s “The Autumn of Joan Didion” in the January/February 2012 issue of the Atlantic, I wouldn’t have believed anyone could dismiss her in quite this way:

“Ultimately Joan Didion’s crime—artistic and personal—is the one of which all of us will eventually be convicted: she got old. Her writing got old, her perspective got old, her bag of tricks didn’t work anymore.”

Blue Nights cover

Her personal crime? Even as a punchy magazine exaggeration, this feels ungracious. I have trouble with Flanagan’s article for a host of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with her pan of Blue Nights, Didion’s latest memoir. Flanagan is right about Didion’s stylistic tics, but she is profoundly wrong about the impact of her later work.

Blue Nights is definitely flawed. It is also an amazing document. In it, Didion grapples with her daughter Quintana Roo’s death in 2005, which followed shortly after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne. (Dunne’s passing is the subject of her previous 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.)

Memories of Quintana float in and out of Blue Nights, like lost petals from the leis and gardenias Didion loves. This is not a hard look at how Didion may have failed the troubled Quintana as a parent—Quintana was adopted, which adds another layer—or what went wrong regardless. There's no resolution or simple answer or even much intriguing dirt.

Perhaps that’s a crime for those who want answers. But for me, the lack of resolution feels true. Blue Nights is an accounting of all that matters and all that doesn’t, and how much, in the end, everything gets mixed up. And it is a look at subjects like mortality and one’s own weakness that have never been palatable to American audiences.

Three-quarters into this short book, Didion finally admits that she turned 75 on her last birthday (in 2009, at the time of writing). She adds:
“Also notice…how long it took me to tell you that one salient fact, how long it took me to address the subject as it were. Aging and its evidence remain life’s most predictable events, yet they also remain matters we prefer to leave unmentioned, unexplored.”
Oh, yes. Flanagan’s take on the slow “disaster” of Didion’s career since The White Album makes these subjects now seem more taboo than ever.

Flanagan wants to have it both ways, of course. She acknowledges how much reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem changed her life. At 14, she even met Didion at a dinner party, when her father was chairman of the U.C. Berkeley English Department. At the time, Didion’s star was on the rise. Flanagan describes, via her father, the “madhouse” crush of fans eager to get into the lecture at which Didion presented “Why I Write.”

Few would deny that Didion was and is an odd duck. At that dinner party in the Flanagan home, young Caitlin’s mother sent her out to talk to the painfully shy Joan, who had worn a Chanel suit to a mid-‘70s Berkeley faculty event.

Such anecdotes are entertaining, and if Flanagan had confined her piece to a personal exploration of how Didion has influenced her, I would have enjoyed it. However, she also mixes in far too many sweeping statements like "to really love Joan have to be female." Or:
“Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair.”
Flanagan and I are contemporaries, and we both grew up in the Bay Area—but her “us” does not apply to me. Hunter Thompson was my Hunter Thompson. I liked Didion, too, but to reduce Slouching Towards Bethlehem to “flowers in our hair” is just as absurd as reducing Thompson’s work to pig-fuckers and endless drug adventures.

Such gender essentialism has never endeared Flanagan to feminists like me. Lately, most of her articles in the Atlantic seem to be flogging her obsession with the special sensibilities of adolescent girls, no doubt related to her new book Girl Land. Here’s how she applies her mono-focus to Didion:
“Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has.”

Maybe yes, especially in her lighter essays of the ‘60s. But Didion’s genius extends to more than girlishness or her ability to describe designer clothes and curtains. Some of my favorite works by her, beyond The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are the reviews she’s written in the past decade for the New York Review of Books.

Yet Flanagan writes these off, calling the older, fiercely intellectual Didion “another tired espouser of the most doctrinaire New York Review of Books political opinions.”

She then trains her sights on Blue Nights, claiming that, in chronicling the indignities of aging, Didion complains about her inability to wear a pair of high-heeled red sandals “in the same tone” as the death of Quintana.

This so thoroughly misreads Didion’s use of the red sandals that it’s almost laughable—and it would be, if Flanagan didn’t reflect the current zeitgeist in such a disturbing way.

Didion mentions those lost shoes not because she cares as much about them as her daughter—come on!—but because at the end of this memoir about facing death, she’s circling around all sorts of details receding from her grasp, including words and place names and memories. Didion writes that Quintana once told her, “Like when someone dies, don’t dwell on it”—another line Didion repeats in a poetic dance with nothingness.

The last line of Blue Nights refers to her daughter, preceded by telegraphic lines that are poetry, including:

“I myself placed her ashes in the wall.

"I myself saw the cathedral doors locked at six.

"I know what it is I am now experiencing.

"I know what the frailty is, I know what the fear is.

"The fear is not for what is lost.

"What is lost is already in the wall.”

We all make personal connections to the artists and pop figures who sparked us when we were young. But for Flanagan, all that seems to matter is retaining the fey Joan of her youth, in her cute little ballet flats and big sunglasses.

For me, Didion observes her own disintegration, yet redeems it, too, through the act of writing. The only “crime” here is the assumption by Flanagan and the larger culture that the youthful desire to live forever trumps the inevitable disruption of loss.

Teenagers may believe the intensity of adolescence is everything. But having just returned from the funeral of my aunt, I will tell you it is not. I will also tell you that I want to face my own mortality rather than ignoring it, and even if Didion has never been my BFF, her latest books are my good companions.


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Maybe Flanagan is afraid of her own edging towards that same irrelevance that she says she sees in Didion, knowing that she has achieved nothing like the lasting fame of her subject?
I dunno. All I do know is that finding this particular piece in the Atlantic was a real head-slapping moment for me. I've enjoyed some of Flanagan's past articles, because I'm enough of a rebel to enjoy the way she tweaks her nose at certain PC verities. (I especially enjoyed the way Flanagan tore into Alice Waters and her "garden in the schools" programs in Berkeley.)

But with Didion, she seems myopic, as if the only POV she can take is that of a young girl. This seem especially off to me because Didion--no feminist herself--has always been the darling of certain male literary establishment figures. How else did she end up with a berth at the New York Review of Books?
I'll admit that I have only read one book by Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), so I can't make an accurate critique of her older works versus her more recent ones.

But Flanagan's essay felt very mean-spirited, and I really disliked the way Flanagan almost made herself the "star" of the piece. I don't know, I just felt bad after reading it.
Good post.

I found the Flanagan article interesting.

I'm more of a casual observer, as I don't have a dog in this hunt.

I ignored most of the snark and found it an interesting take on Didion - especially her personal experiences of the 70's Berkeley.

I liked 'Magical Thinking' but it was maybe a little more than enough for me.

Compare to Joyce Carol Oates New Yorker Piece:

Check out D'Art's

For whatever reason, she seems to be on people's mind these days.
Enjoyable review of a review. I haven't read Flanagan's yet, but now I must!
Excellent analysis and thanks for sticking up for Joan Didion. Not because she's your BFF or anything, but because she deserves the respect of any aging and/or imperfect artist (and aren't they all) who can only speak her own truth as she sees fit. I can't say I'm deeply read on the author, but I've enjoyed Didion's work, and I enjoyed this article.
Well I'm still not clear in my throw-away lines between dogs in fights and dogs in hunts but the one thing I'm pretty clear about is that I read the Caitlin Flanagan dead trees Atlantic article yesterday. Or maybe day before yesterday? I live alone and dead tree stuff = my mealtime companion(s).

For sure I found it engrossing, and had lots of what I call "thunks" as well as feelings. And I kind of wished Flanagan had a blog -- to serve pretty much exactly the function your post is functioning. Hope this thread will stay active for quite a while and then, who knows? Maybe you and Flanagan can get together either in the dead tree world or in the blogosphere and who knows what all might come of that? Thanks so much for this post!

Nick, you may be right that Didion is on our collective minds, and not just because of Flanagan's article. Maybe it's a foreshadowing, just a frisson, that she won't be in this world much longer.

For me, it was the strange conjunction of reading Blue Nights while attending the funeral of a well-loved family relation—then coming across Flanagan's article.

Bluestocking--yes, I believe Didion deserves respect, as do all writers, although by writing so personally and introspectively for public consumption, I don't think Didion is off the critical hook just because of her age. What disturbed me most about Flanagan's article is that aging and the indignities it brings on seemed to be what she was targeting as much as Didion.

Having struggled with a fair amount of grief myself these past few years, I can't help thinking that most people would rather hide all "downer" feelings.

podunkmarte--who knows? maybe someday I'll blog it our with Caitlin F. Thanks!
Martha Nichols, I enjoyed your critique, but in my opinion the most vapid and ignorant piece Flanagan has ever written is her Garden in the Schools piece. She is extremely concerned that inner city children will take an hour a week out of their studies--an hour!--to learn something as unimportant and inconsequential as where food comes from instead of reading Jane Eyre. But it turns out that she knows less about where food comes from than they do. She finds an inner city food market where Latinos get cheap fruits and vegetables, but it never occurs to her to question how that food is so cheap (something to do with the manual labor that she fears for these children?). The concept of cheap food's hidden costs is foreign to her, because she knows less than the Alice Waters program's students do about where their food comes from. It seems she is just as afraid that these children will become better educated in subjects she knows little about (the nation's food supply) as she is that children will lack an education in subjects she purportedly knows a lot about (Emerson and Euclid). I recommend "The Omnivore's Dilemma" or the movie "Food, Inc." for a primer on the issues that Flanagan would rather bury underground. This is written by someone who loves Emerson, Euclid, and Jane Eyre.
Flanagan is an equal-opportunity offender, isn't she? Hallie, I appreciate you going into detail about the Garden in the Schools program. I won't claim enough knowledge of the program (beyond Flanagan's article) to argue. I bet you're right.

The thing is, there's enough snark in me to enjoy seeing Alice Waters get a slap in print, because I am thoroughly sick of her lifestyle politicking and pontificating. But that doesn't mean the Garden in the Schools program is bad. Thanks for pointing that out.
"You either love her, hate her or have mixed feelings about her?" Really? That seems like one of the more wasteful sentences ever scribed in the history of written language. I know Didion would agree.

I'm a guy. This necessarily means I cannot be a feminist, though I would say that I am about as pro-feminist as any guy I've ever come across (without being a pussy about it), and I love Didion. She taught America what Reagan did to California, and it was exactly what he did to the country when he was president.

I never looked at her as a female writer, just as I never viewed her husband as a male writer, nor any of their many literary friends as writers by gender. She was just a great writer.

But, The Year of Magical Thinking fell flat, for me anyway, and I quit seeking her writings like I used to, though I have most of her books of short essays and flip through them sometimes still, and catch something from her on the net every now and again.

She is getting old. Her perspective is also old. This can be a good and a bad thing. You, yourself say the book is flawed. Why are you so fired up about someone else writing an article saying the same thing, albeit it for different reasons?

The only one of Didion's books that I've read is The Year of Magical Thinking and I loved it. I thought it was moving and insightful and have been meaning to get a copy of Blue Nights. I'm curious to read Flanagan's article but I'm already annoyed by it from what you have revealed!
Excuse me but I find Flanagan vacuous, her details about Didion an air headed attempt to pigeon hole Didion into a less than marketable figure for the everyday woman. Didion is not always accessible which is the beauty of her writing, it requires a bit of reflection in direct opposition to Flanagan's pulpy prose. I found her remarks about meeting Didion quite revealing; about Flanagan and the subjective way she judges woman. Thanks for this Martha, it brings to the forefront many issues in writing today.
Excellent critique of a book I haven't read yet, but will read. Flanagan is offensive in her vacuity and feeble attempts to pigeonhole and put down an artist to whom she clearly feels inferior. Didion has her faults, but she influenced my writing, and the writing of many others. The same can't be said of her detractor.
Is there something Flanagan does get? I was never a big fan of either. I don't get that Flanagan has a regular gig and all of us here can think of any number of unpaid bloggers who write more interesting slice of slice stuff than her.
Somehow I always want to stick Flanagan in the same catgory as David Brooks: somebody who is too clueless to be aware they are clueless, somebody who gets paid to make vague declarative statements that are hard to refute and generally lacking in substance.
"Salvador", Joan Didion's 1983 walk around El Salvador, taught me how a writer can unclench her fists and punch harder for doing so. The best response to have, perhaps, when confronted with mass graves and state terror, is an upraised fist and militant self-righteousness that leads to effective action. But the best reaction to read is the straightforward investigation, the searching, the interviews, the car rides, the dogy looks and private grief and circuitous reality. I stopped being a simple-minded leftist with that book. Didion was far more than Malibu flowers and critical reviews. Her final works are the "of course" works of an artist for whom Salvador came home, writ small and up close, and the terror was of the state we all find ourselves in: biology, choices, omissions, decline. departure. She dares to inhabit her own skin and examine how every family, every love we have, is a crime scene and a mystery. Hunter rocked, but Didion walks upright. What else do we ask of a writer?
it was a strange piece by Flanagan...because it was a kind of sly attack. a passive aggressive embrace where she made commenters think that Didion mostly writes about pearls and flowers or fashion when I don't remember that kind of thing in her writing at all.
Thanks for writing this. I puzzled over that Flanagan piece long and hard. I have read "Blue Lights" four times. I think it is Didion's most direct and least "tic-ridden" book and I never want to think about that Atlantic piece again. I cannot say it's trash but it's totally irrelevant to Didion's loss and pain and aging. I wrote her a snail mail letter. R
Thanks, all for checking in, because you've made me understand even more why that Flanagan piece made me so queasy. Yes, it was very passive aggressive, doloresflores_d -- I didn't even realize that until you noted it. And Greg, yes yes yes--to Salvador and to Didion bringing her intent focus back to that interior place she's reached with her own aging. wendyo, I do agree that Blue Nights is one of Didion's most amazing books, and it's one that I will be doing more writing about in an upcoming issue of TalkingWriting.
Martha, your piece is provocative for me in that both Mses Didion and Flanagan happen to be pet peeves of mine.

My beef with Joan goes back to the 60s, when she flipped her hand at every aspect of the counterculture, with a world weariness she was too young to have earned. I can't make head nor tails of her later NYRB stuff. And there's the fact that she loved to rag on Hollywood, biting the hand that generously fed her and her deceased husband.

But at least Joan's not putting it all on. I suspect that Caitlin's crime is worse: that all of her anti-feminist poses are just attempts to boost her career. Far as hypocrisy goes, she's as bad as Joan. Really - writing a book extolling the virtues of being a stay-at-home mom and castigating feminists for avoiding it, written while she had a nanny AND a housekeeper.
John, yes, Didion had a kind of wry distance on the counterculture that was sometimes problematic. But, she is the real deal. As for the NY Review of Books, some of her pieces are better than others, but the roundup review she did of 10-plus books about Dick Cheney is wonderfully sly and brilliant--and gets down Cheney's defensive, creepy voice to a T.
Flanagan's a hack - you're not, and neither is Joan. (I just waded through her piece on Oprah in The Atlantic - my eyes are bleeding. Please do a post on it!)
Duh. Flanagan wrote the article on Oprah - my sentences make no sense. BTW - thanks so much for Talking Writing - I love getting it in my email box.
Flanagan misses the point of BLUE NIGHTS, and instead reveals something about herself, namely a fear of aging and possibly death. Which is where Didion now shines. She explores in her unique and prose magnificent way, these two topics. Not since May Sarton has a writer taken on aging in such an explicit and knowing way. Didion shines her lazer on this topic, just as brilliantly as she has shone her lazer on any political or war story. What is anti-feminist here, is the reduction of such serious subect matter, to that of women only, or old folks only. Didion is as brave and ingenious as ever. For me, BLUE NIGHTS was the best book I read in 2011. Thanks for your blog.
I love Rita Shibr's comments. Indeed, I think Ms. Flanagan is having a hard time facing her own mortality and is threatened by Ms. Didion's confrontation of reality. Fascinating post. Thanks.
Pam, thanks so much for reminding me of May Sarton's work. I plan to do more writing about the papering over of grief and aging, and that's a very good reference point.

Elizabeth, regarding the denial of one's mortality--oh, it is so easy to do, especially if you live with young children or teenagers. That's the problem. In the youth-culture context, Didion's bravery seems wimpy or beside the point. But it's not,of course.

aim--I'm delighted that you love getting Talking Writing in your email box! That's exactly the response I want readers to have. Thanks for making my day.
It's early. First reads help to wake me up.
I first read you BIO. Lady Borton and You.
You must know of her and Children Books?
You convinced me to get the Rate Reduction.
If I reply by January 30th I save $54.53. Yea!
Cover Price is $69.50. Reduced price- $14.97.
I read less and less new books. I read some tho.
Focus . . .
You caused me to recall a book by Bruce Weigal.
Sweet Loraine
Before me, my father's
immigrant father
appeared in rosy incense smoke.

He who had made shoes from sheets of hard leather
with his hands and knife.

He who had fixed al broken things
and butchered lambs in spring.
He who in his anger
had made my father kneel on dry corn
his raging hands had shucked
across the bathroom floor.
I have never knelt on dry corn,
the way my father
has never prayed
on the floor of a stranger's
house in Hanoi,

yet through the tears
that cling
to the razor sharp kernels

came the belt
and the backhands
out of nowhere, my father,
beating like a angel
for heaven through me.
by Bruce Weigal
My Father never beat me.
Weigal was in Vietnam too.
He was in The First Air Cav.
It was a air mobile company.
I was Drafted and serves too.
Max Cleland was in that outfit.
He was the former Senator.
He began the Vet Outreach.
I worked in Readjustment.
It was a difficult service.
The Book Titled:
Odysseus in America.
By Jonathan Shay M.D.
Max C. wrote a`Forward,
I may get the good reduced rate.
The New York Review of Books.
A reduced credit - Save $54.53.
That extra 333 - beer money.
Bali Bali Bali is Vietnam bear.
Congrats in the EP. no burp.
giggle. do burp new babies.
I arrived at Joan Didion apparently through some scripts, although I have subscribed to The New York Review of Books for about 25 years. You can probably tell, as I just throw that over the transom,that Joan Didion and I share an age in common which has caused me to disdain David Brooks who always looks baffled as to what is going on. Long before that, I felt a sense of outrage that I was living in the same place as Joyce Carol Oates when she bragged to me about Gorbachev requesting to meet her on his visit to the U.S. Which means, I probably can't get too fired up that Alice Waters seems to behave like most others who are part and parcel of Berkeley culture (that other Russian likes her; the one who dances on long after his predecessor).

Is it any wonder that Didion might quietly scoff at the "counter-culture"; which may mean different things to differing people.

I'll confess. I discovered Joan Didion through James Ellroy and John Gregory Dunne. Ellroy's mother comes from a territory with which I am somewhat familiar; I had an Irish godmother from there and that factor probably separates me from Ellroy right there. Except, he is kind of brilliant about Dashiell Hammett. Dunne, to whom Didion was married, attended Princeton in the borough where I arrived just a few years after Michelle nee Robinson Obama left with her degree in Sociology.

It was because I picked up a book of John Dunne's, along with one written by James Elroy, that I was directed to Joan Didion. Granted because both men were to different degrees interested in the Black Dahlia (although I seem to remember Dunne titled her the Blue Dahlia?); and then there was the movie script which made it much clearer that this had happened to Betty Short the year that I went with my parents to visit my father's sister in California. Which means that more than half a century later, I learn that Joan Didion was in the habit of sitting down in the same "office" with her husband to write scripts known as film-treatments.

How many women do you know who could pull that off for forty years? This was definitely a woman to discover.

I attempted to moderate a forum at the when The Year of Magical Thinking was to be read by the participants and the first animosity that I encountered was from a person who insisted there didn't seem to be much religiousity in this account and she blamed Dunne and Didion for not paying due respect in that regard. I asked her, then, the poster to the Books Forum, had she not noted the arrangements that were made for the funeral mass as described by Didion?

As it turned out this critical reader, a year or two or more later,
when the had turned off their open forums, given a new setting and a politician named Barack Obama, stated unequivocally that she had herself walked out on her own church,never to return.
I could have just as well said that Tony Perkins led me to Joan Didian through Play it As it Lays.
i thought i did enough/to make my folly stop/i thought my own obsession/had ceased trapping inspiration

the sunset pointed out/my spirit tired to shout/and my body trembles/when all become bubbles - Claveria Masbate
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