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.”
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 Didion...you 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.