Joan Didion Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How would you describe Joan Didion’s style as a writer? Cite passages and give your opinion of the style in each, keeping in mind her remark in the essay “On Morality,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, that her “mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.”

What evidence in Didion’s works suggests her lifestyle? Does your knowledge of how she lives affect how you judge her stated or implied opinions?

In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion says that, because of her appearance and her manner, people fail to understand the harm she can do them and that her readers should remember that “writers are always selling somebody out.” What evidence, if any, do you see in her writings that she sells people out?

In the essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion writes that she tells “what some would call lies” and adds the comment, “not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.” Do you believe those ideas go beyond her writer’s notebook and apply not only to her novels but also to her essays?

In the essay “On Morality,” Didion says that the only kind of morality she trusts is “wagon-train morality.” She gives as an example of an incident in which, after an automobile accident, a nurse drove an injured young woman far across the desert and mountains to a doctor while the nurse’s husband stayed behind to protect a young man’s dead body from coyotes. Consider several of Didion’s writings and explain whether the main persons in those writings observe or violate that kind of social code.

In Political Fictions, Didion says that the “genuflection toward ’fairness’ is a familiar newsroom piety, in practice the excuse for a good deal of autopilot reporting and lazy thinking but in theory a benign ideal.” How do you think Didion, a reporter herself, would define reportorial fairness as it applies to her? How do her remarks about fairness affect your opinion of her nonfiction or her fiction?

Do you think many people outside academic life in the twenty-second century will read Didion’s books? Why or why not?

Other Literary Forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joan Didion (DIHD-ee-uhn) is respected as a novelist, but she is even more highly acclaimed as an essayist. Her career as a writer was launched by a piece of nonfiction; in 1956, during Didion’s senior year at the University of California at Berkeley, her article on the San Francisco architect William Wilson Wurster won Vogue’s Prix de Paris contest for young writers, and she was awarded a job with that magazine. Although she resigned her position at Vogue in 1963 to devote more time to her fiction, she continued as a film critic for the magazine and began publishing regularly in the Saturday Evening Post. She also wrote articles for periodicals such as The American Scholar, The New York Times Magazine, National Review, Esquire, New West, and The New York Review of Books. Didion also collaborated with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, on several screenplays.

Didion achieved national recognition with her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968); her second collection, The White Album (1979), was a best seller. Her books Salvador (1983) and Miami (1987) are overtly political and aroused considerable controversy. After Henry (1992), her third essay collection, largely concerns California subjects. This return to her original source of topics was well received by many critics. Political Fictions (2001) deals...

(The entire section is 504 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Joan Didion’s achievements are somewhat paradoxical. Despite her claims that she speaks only for herself, she became a spokeswoman for the anxiety-ridden generation of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; as surely as F. Scott Fitzgerald became the chronicler of the Jazz Age, she became the chronicler of a generation living, in her terms, “close to the edge.” Didion developed a reputation for cool, detached observation and for a syncopated but elegant style. Poet James Dickey called her “the finest woman prose stylist writing in English today,” and even some who dismiss her as intellectually shallow respect her craftsmanship.

Didion’s accomplishments were formally recognized in 1996 when she was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for outstanding contributions to the arts. Previous recipients have included Robert Frost, Lillian Hellman, and Mary McCarthy. In 1999 she was given a Columbia Journalism Award by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. In 2005, The Year of Magical Thinking won the National Book Award for nonfiction, and Didion received the 2006 Hubert Howe Bancroft Award, given for “significant achievements in support of historical research and scholarship.” In 2007, she won the Evelyn F. Burkey Award from the Writer’s Guild of America, East, an honor given in recognition of writers whose “contributions have brought honor and dignity to writers everywhere.” In the same year she won the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in recognition of her achievements as a novelist and essayist.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Felton, Sharon, ed. The Critical Response to Joan Didion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. This useful collection of reviews and scholarly essays covers Didion’s work through After Henry.

Friedman, Ellen G., ed. Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations. Princeton, N.J.: Ontario Review Press, 1984. Collects essays on various themes and deals with works through Salvador.

Hall, Linda. “The Writer Who Came in from the Cold.” New York 29 (September, 1996): 28-33, 57. Published shortly after the release of The Last Thing He Wanted, this profile is particularly strong on Didion’s early career and the influence of her former mentor, Noel Parmentel.

Hanley, Lynne. Writing War: Fiction, Gender, and Memory. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1991. Two chapters of this elegantly written study discuss Didion’s depictions of war in A Book of Common Prayer, El Salvador, and Democracy.

Henderson, Katherine Usher. Joan Didion. New York: Ungar, 1981. A brief but helpful introductory study of Didion’s life and work up through The White Album, this book is written for a general audience of nonspecialists.

Loris, Michelle Carbone. Innocence, Loss, and Recovery in the Art of Joan Didion. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Explores psychological aspects of Didion’s fiction. Includes bibliographical references.

Winchell, Mark Royden. Joan Didion. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. A revised and updated version of the first book written on Didion, this study follows its subject’s career up through Miami. Although his work is accessible to the general reader, Winchell writes for a scholarly audience.