Joan Didion Didion, Joan (Vol. 129) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Joan Didion 1934-

American essayist and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Didion's career through 1997. See also Joan Didion Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 14, 32.

Didion is one of the most highly regarded contemporary American writers of essays and novels. In her writing she focuses on the disintegration of American morals in both the public and private spheres and the cultural chaos that results from individual and societal fragmentation, using her own subjective experiences and observations as a vantage point.

Biographical Information

Didion was born in Sacramento, California, in 1934. After graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1956, she took a job as a promotional copywriter at Vogue magazine in New York, eventually rising to the position of associate feature editor. In this period she met and married John Gregory Dunne, with whom she collaborated on screenplays. Didion's first novel, Run River, was published in 1963, while she still worked at Vogue. The next year she and Dunne moved back to California, where Didion worked as a freelance reporter. Didion's writing soon attracted national attention, and some of her impressive early essays were collected in her first nonfiction work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968). Didion has earned numerous awards and honors for her writing.

Major Works

Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album (1979) are both collections of Didion's journalistic essays, many of which criticize what Didion saw as the collapse of American culture in the 1960s and the shallow inarticulateness of members of the hippie movement. Intermingled with these observations are chronicles of Didion's personal struggles with debilitating migraine headaches, depression, and anxiety. In the title essay of The White Album, which concerns both the national chaos of the summer of 1968 and her own nervous breakdown at that time, Didion quotes the psychiatric evaluation she underwent and rejoins, “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” This essay illustrates well the emphasis Didion places in all her writing on the relationship between personal and public dissolution. Geographic locations play an important role in emphasizing themes in Didion's works. The setting for Maria Wyeth's nihilistic crisis in Play It As It Lays (1970) is the superficial world of Hollywood, where people use one another to advance their own status. In A Book of Common Prayer (1977) the violent uprisings in the fictional Latin American country of Boca Grande mirror the sexual and emotional crises of Charlotte Douglas, who is eventually murdered, her body dumped at the American embassy. Turbulence and brutality again dominate Salvador (1983), Didion's book-length essay on the two-week trip she took with her husband in 1982 to El Salvador during a period of violent political upheaval. Like most of Didion's nonfiction, Salvador is not an objective report of facts but a detailed and personal account of the terror that pervades daily existence in such a place. In the novel Democracy (1984) Didion returned to her concern for the loss of traditional values and the absence of viable new ones. The story can be read on several levels: as a murder mystery, a love story, and an exposure of the fraudulence of public life. The various narrative threads interweave to form a picture of America's political decline and moral decay. Somewhat disarmingly, Didion provided the narrator with her own name, forcing the reader to question the fictional nature of the other characters. In the nonfictional Miami (1987) Didion indicts U.S. foreign policy from the administrations of John F. Kennedy through Ronald Reagan, concentrating on the thirty-year history of Cuban emigres living in Miami. After Henry (1992) is a collection of twelve essays organized around the geographic locations of Washington, D.C., California, and New York City, which Didion regards as the touch points at which the American dream collides violently with the corrupting influence of power. The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) is a difficult, circuitous romantic thriller that many critics have found to read more like an extended prose poem or a screenplay than a traditional narrative. Didion again used the backdrops of Hollywood, Florida, and Central America to weave a tale of covert activity, political intrigue, and personal fragmentation.

Critical Reception

While critics are sometimes sharply divided over the effectiveness of Didion's unorthodox narrative and journalistic styles, almost all agree that the quality of her writing is exceptional. Known as a perfectionist, Didion values grammatical and rhetorical precision, which many reviewers hail as a great strength regardless of their opinion of her social and political analysis. Overall, Didion's essays are more highly regarded than her novels; Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album contain what many consider some of the best writing available on events in the 1960s. But the novels, too, despite mixed reviews, are praised for eschewing florid romanticism in favor of acute detail and sometimes morbid description of dark human impulses. While some critics accuse Didion of occasionally slipping into arrogance and snobbishness, John Leonard summarized the opinions of many others when he observed, “Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Run River (novel) 1963

Slouching Towards Bethlehem (essays) 1968

Play It As It Lays (novel) 1970

A Book of Common Prayer (novel) 1977

The White Album (essays) 1979

Salvador (nonfiction) 1983

Democracy (novel) 1984

Miami (nonfiction) 1987

After Henry (essays) 1992

The Last Thing He Wanted (novel) 1996

Dean Flower (review date Summer 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Fiction Chronicle,” in Hudson Review, Vol. XXX, No. 2, Summer, 1977, pp. 311-12.

[In the following review, Flower praises Didion's handling of the difficult plot and character development in A Book of Common Prayer.]

\Let's] take a look at Joan Didion's masterful third novel, A Book of Common Prayer. On its first page she quietly makes reference not to Cranmer but to Ford Madox Ford. “Charlotte would call her story one of passion. I believe I would call it one of delusion.” Not just the subtitle of The Good Soldier but its slow-learning narrator, its romantic protagonist, its disordered siftings of the past, its overlappings and repetitions; all the book owes much to Ford. In perfect control of this difficult form, Didion writes with an inspiration entirely her own. The first-person narrator is Grace Strasser-Mendana, a widowed American woman dying of cancer who owns much of Boca Grande, which is the hypothetical Central American state where the story begins and ends. She undertakes to give an account of the confused life and pointless death of Mrs. Charlotte Douglas, whose two marriages and two daughters have variously died. We are told it “does not matter who ‘I’ am,” but in fact it matters a great deal. The narrator distrusts most people's words, pointing out bitingly their imprecisions, lies and evasions; she prefers the clear terminology of her own scientific papers. Or so she thinks. Her portrait of Charlotte begins with unsparing criticism, near contempt: “it was characteristic of Charlotte that whenever the phrase ‘realistic but optimistic’ appeared in a school communiqué she read it as ‘realistic and optimistic.’” Thinking about the ambiguity of existence in the tropics, she tries to tell Charlotte “A banana palm is no more or less ‘alive’ than its rot,” but Charlotte again does “not quite see my point.” For she is a childish romantic: “Every memory was ‘lyrical,’ every denouement ‘hilarious,’ and sometimes ‘ironic’ as well.” It seems her enthusiasm would be charming if it weren't so ignorant:...

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Victor Strandberg (essay date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Passion and Delusion in A Book of Common Prayer,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 225-42.

[In the following essay, Strandberg examines Didion's themes of alienation, sexuality, morality, and salvation in A Book of Common Prayer.]

In her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem (which begins by reciting all of “The Second Coming”), Joan Didion wrote that for several years certain of Yeats's images—“the widening gyre, the falcon which does not hear the falconer, the gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”—comprised “the only images against which much of what I was seeing and hearing and thinking...

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Leonel Gómez Videz (review date 6 June 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Dreamwork,” in New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 22, June 6, 1983, pp. 33-36.

[In the following review, Videz finds Salvador a less than illuminating study of conditions in El Salvador.]

In the aftermath of President Reagan's recent address to the Joint Session of Congress and in light of ongoing congressional deliberations, the American people need to understand El Salvador. Joan Didion's book \Salvador] should have helped. It does not.

Last June Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, traveled to El Salvador for two weeks, and spoke with various local and American officials. After this “fortnight of living...

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Rodney Simard (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Dissociation of Self in Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays,” in Narcissism and the Text: Studies in Literature and the Psychology of Self, edited by Lynne Layton and Barbara Ann Schapiro, 1986, pp. 273-87.

[In the following essay, Simard presents a psychoanalytical evaluation of Didion's novel Play It As It Lays.]

Although Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays (1970) is unquestionably a study of the modern malaise and an exploration of the futility of existence in a crumbling and decadent society, one must be careful not to assume that Maria Wyeth is an existential Everyman. She is a victim of absurdity, but hers is a very specialized case;...

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Mark Z. Muggli (essay date October 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Poetics of Joan Didion's Journalism,” in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 3, October, 1987, pp. 402-21.

[In the following essay, Muggli examines what he considers Didion's “Imagistic” journalistic technique.]

Historians, political scientists, sociologists, and communication theorists have written valuable general analyses of the print media, but close analysis of individual journalistic texts has been rare. Shelley Fisher Fishkin has effectively studied the relationship of the journalism and fiction of five earlier American writers; and the New Journalism of the 1960s and '70s stimulated discussion of the lengthy factual works of writers like...

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Katherine Usher Henderson (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Bond between Narrator and Heroine in Democracy,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1989, pp. 69-85.

[In the following essay, Henderson calls Democracy “an uneasy affirmation of the possibility of personal meaning” because of its portrayal of the relationship between its central female characters.]

When Susan Stamberg told Joan Didion in a 1977 radio interview that she would never win the Nobel Prize for literature because her novels were too pessimistic, Didion readily agreed.

I think that's probably true. … One of the books that made...

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Stuart Ching (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘A Hard Story to Tell’: The Vietnam War in Joan Didion's Democracy,” in Fourteen Landing Zones: Approaches to Vietnam War Literature, edited by Philip K. Jason, 1991, pp. 180-87.

[In the following essay, Ching analyzes Didion's attempt in Democracy to create a pattern of meaning out of events during the Vietnam War.]

In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Joan Didion describes the fragmentation of the nation's youth in the 1960s. The essay's title, which is also the title of the collection in which it appears, is from the last line of Yeats's “The Second Coming.” Didion claims in the preface to her collection that certain lines from...

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Carolyn Goffman (essay date Fall 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Beyond Reportage in Salvador,” in Connecticut Review, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 15-21.

[In the following essay, Goffman reviews critical commentary on Salvador and concludes that Didion's unorthodox journalistic style allows the reader to identify more fully with her and with the situation in El Salvador.]

In the eight years since its publication, Joan Didion's Salvador has aroused a full spectrum of response, from criticism for sloppy reporting (Pilger) to praise for ascending “beyond journalism” (Kiley). Readers looking for solutions to the problems in El Salvador complained that they searched in vain, and chastised...

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Paul Heilker (essay date Spring-Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Struggle for Articulation and Didion's Construction of the Reader's Self-Respect in Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in The CEA Critic, Vol. 54, No. 3, Spring-Summer, 1992, pp. 26-36.

[In the following essay, Heilker examines the connection between Didion's literary style and the theme in Slouching Towards Bethlehem of the necessity of a society's grasp of language in the development of individual character and self-respect that lead to responsible adulthood and, ultimately, genuine freedom.]

However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether...

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Walter Wells (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Didion's ‘Los Angeles Notebook,’” in The Explicator, Vol. 52, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 181-82.

[In the following essay, Wells finds ironic Christian symbolism in Didion's essay “Los Angeles Notebook.”]

Among instances of the “supermarket” metaphor in American writing, the third section of Joan Didion's “Los Angeles Notebook”—a slight, self-contained narrative that may perplex at first reading—is probably the densest and most richly suggestive of them all.

This 198-word vignette links its modern characters and setting to a theme at least as old as that of Bunyan's Vanity Fair: tension between the earthly gratifications...

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Vivian Gornick (review date December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Prose of Nothingness,” in The Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIV, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 6-7.

[In the following review, Gornick comments on the emptiness in The Last Thing He Wanted noting that Didion's fiction appears to cover the same ground repeatedly without adequate development.]

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

It's in the essays, I believe, that the anxiety...

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Thomas Filbin (review date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Familiar Capability,” in Hudson Review, Vol. L, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 159-60.

[In the following review, Filbin praises Didion's evocation of events in America during the 1980s in The Last Thing He Wanted.]

Joan Didion's latest novel \The Last Thing He Wanted] follows the shadowy excesses of American foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s, where the truth was, of course, far stranger than fiction. Even Tom Clancy would not have invented the Iran-Contra affair, or someone as wildly improbable as Oliver North, who considered himself heroic, religious, and patriotic all the time he subverted the law. A man whose principles allow him to...

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Wayne Koestenbaum (review date 3 April 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Pink Hotel,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 19, No. 7, April 3, 1997, pp. 20-21.

[In the following review, Koestenbaum discusses the notion of “hotel prose”—writing that elicits alienation and transience—finding Didion to be “our finest living avatar” of such writing.]

I began this feuilleton in a hotel room, the Hyatt Regency in Houston, Texas: a Didionesque locale. (Caryl Phillips once told me that he liked to write his books in faraway hotel rooms. I admire that. It brings to mind Janet Flanner at the Ritz and James Schuyler at the Chelsea.) Joan Didion has often noted transiency's allure, a writer's necessary alienation from fixed...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Blankley, Elyse. “Clear-Cutting the Western Myth: Beyond Joan Didion.” In San Francisco in Fiction: Essays in a Regional Literature, edited by David Fine and Paul Skenazy, pp. 177-94. Albuquerque: University of Mexico Press, 1995.

Examines the “myth of a vanishing Eden” in the novel Run River.

Chabot, C. Barry. “Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays and the Vacuity of the ‘Here and Now.’” Critique XXI, No. 3 (1980): 53-60.

Discusses the existential solution of the character Marie Wyeth in Play It As It Lays, arguing that it provides merely an illusory relief from the problem....

(The entire section is 543 words.)