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A Hostile Act

by Liz Murphy

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion, Harper Collins, 2020.

In the spring of 1975, Joan Didion was Regents’ Lecturer at UC Berkeley, and — as she said so herself — stealing ideas from George Orwell. Originally a lecture given as part of her post, ‘Why I Write’ (much like Orwell’s essay of the same title) chronicles her path to becoming a writer — or rather, the path leading to the realisation that she could (and should) write. ‘It took me some years to discover what I was. Which was a writer,’ she explains, then swiftly clarifies: ‘by which I mean not a “good” writer or a “bad” writer but simply a writer, a person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.’ Although the essay version of ‘Why I Write’ (subsequently published in 1976 in the New York Times) became one of Didion’s seminal pieces, it had never been included in one of her non-fiction collections — until now, that is. Her newest release, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is an eclectic assemblage of twelve essays which cover such varied topics as the underground press, her failure to get into Stanford, and a disembowelment of Nancy Reagan. The collection is new only in its arrangement: its most recent piece is twenty years old, an essay on Martha Stewart first published in The New Yorker. To be more precise, then, this is a fresh binding of old material, spanning from the late 1960s during Didion’s tenure at the Saturday Evening Post to the turn of the millennium.

Didion, who turned 86 in December, stopped publishing new material in 2011. South and West, her most recent publication prior to Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was of a similarly archival nature, including two essays written in the 1970s as a pair of diary entries. While both collections are an invitation to revisit Didion’s past work (perhaps in order to demonstrate the prescience of her writing, which appears uncannily relevant to our own era), Let Me Tell You What I Mean is marked by a particularly strong autobiographical impulse. The pieces are organised in chronological order, starting in 1968 — the same year as the publication of Didion’s first essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, widely regarded as one of the most influential collections of the twentieth century. The latest collection seemingly demonstrates a desire to chart the progression of Didion as both wordsmith and reporter, from the early days of her fame to her cemented status as one of America's living literary icons. For a writer as shrewd as Joan Didion, however, such surface-level accolades are never going to paint the full picture. Questions as to why she has decided to collect these particular essays now, in presumably the last publication of her living career, are ones which she dares the reader to ask.

The very title of Let Me Tell You What I Mean goes some way in elucidating the ulterior motivations for this personal reappraisal. In one sense, it emphasises Didion’s ever-present preoccupation with meaning: she is conscious of the gap between what she intends to communicate directly to her reader and the meanings which they ultimately garner — a consequence, perhaps, of the unpredictability of the journalistic process. She is acutely aware that readers can interpret what they read freely, and so, potentially, incorrectly. The outcome of Didion’s writing remains not entirely within her control. The confessional, intimate title of Let Me Tell You What I Mean alludes to one of her idiosyncratic rhetorical devices: in constantly presupposing a muddling of her intended meaning, she saturates her prose with signposts such as ‘by which I mean,’ or ‘I tell you that because.’ In a recent review of her work for The New Yorker, Nathan Heller describes how Didion seems alert to the fact that she may say what she means insufficiently clearly, while simultaneously being wary of writing so clearly and with such concision that it leaves her work vulnerable to distortion and flattening.

This anxiety may have arisen from her self-professed failure to ‘get across her meaning’ in the title essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1967. The essay was a tell-all report on the San Francisco neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury during the height of the hippie movement in the late sixties. In the collection’s preface, Didion reflects that ‘it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.’ Everyone — from ‘disc jockeys’ to ‘acquaintances’— wanted to congratulate her, and to discuss aspects of the piece (such as the incidence of ‘filth’ in Haight-Ashbury) that she clearly felt were irrelevant to what she had intended. During a radio interview a few years later, she backtracked on this accusation of misunderstanding on the part of the reader, confessing that ‘usually on a piece there comes a day when you know you never have to do another interview […] You can go home, you’ve gotten it. Well, that day never came on that piece … That piece is a blank for me still.’ In this now famous report, Didion could observe what was happening but could not explain it to her reader. It demonstrated how writing, even at its most lucid, constantly contains the capacity for misreading. Words had failed her.

In the essays ‘Last Words’ and ‘Why I Write,’ she repeatedly scrutinises the use — and what Didion labels the ‘infinite power’ — of grammar and its ability to shape meaning. In the former, Didion writes:

'The very grammar of a Hemingway sentence dictated, or was dictated by, a certain way of looking at the world, a way of looking but not joining, a way of moving through but not attaching, a kind of romantic individualism distinctly adapted to its time and source.'

Didion’s interest in Hemingway was noted by Hilton Als in his illuminating foreword to Let Me Tell You What I Mean. Her deconstruction of Hemingway’s syntax, Als writes, ‘feels like a portrait of Joan Didion.’ Hemingway, Didion argues, offers the ‘illusion but not the fact of specificity’, dwelling in ‘a tension of withheld information.’ The maxim ‘a way of looking but not joining’ accords with Didion’s explanation of her own method, her Hemingway-like ability to toy with ambiguity and particularity, to situate the reader in a constant struggle between distance and intimacy. She writes that to shift the structure of a sentence alters its meaning, ‘as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.’ This same essay begins with Didion pointing out that the sound you hear in those three words — ‘Why I Write ’— is ‘I, I, I’: she wrestles with the idea that forcing this lens on a reader is ‘an aggressive, even a hostile act … there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.’ The “I” of Didion’s prose is like the “eye” of the camera: its focalising capacities means it necessarily dictates a mode of viewing. Indeed, the pun on “I” and “eye” recurs so frequently throughout Let Me Tell You What I Mean that the elision seems pointed and purposeful, which is where the title’s other implication comes into focus. Read together, these essays reveal an attempt to interpret — by writing about others, mostly — what Joan Didion means to us. What the “I” of the title actually represents is the enigma that needs to be deciphered.

‘Of course, part of the remarkable character of Didion’s work has to do with her refusal to pretend that she doesn’t exist,’ writes Als. In ‘Alicia and the Underground Press’, which features in the new collection, she lays out a ‘kind of writerly ethos,’ to borrow Als’s phrasing. Of the underground publications, she writes that ‘their particular virtue is to be devoid of conventional press postures, so many of which rest on a quite factitious “objectivity”. Do not misread me: I admire objectivity very much, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias.’ She elsewhere describes this ‘particular bias’ as a type of ‘romantic individualism,’ a specific ‘way of looking’ that Didion detects in Hemingway’s style. ‘Romantic individualism’ entails a commitment to detail in order to create an inherently subjective experience of an event. A manifestation of this ‘romantic individualism’ in Didion’s prose is the frequency with which she divulges her personal circumstances when reporting external events. Alex Clark, in a recent piece on Let Me Tell You What I Mean, makes the case that in order to ‘think’ about Didion, before you get to the words, you have to ‘confront the anecdotes’.

Many of her most famous essays feature the personal stories of Didion’s life: partying with Janis Joplin and The Doors, suffering migraines, lines of Ezra Pound, getting her first assignment at Vogue because someone else dropped out. The stories are manifest in minute details too: the Bendel’s black wool challis dress, the Grès perfume, the dirty raincoat that she donned in her writing workshop aged nineteen in a paradoxical attempt to ‘appear invisible.’ The trouble with the anecdotal mode is its capacity to both beguile and reveal at once. In the titular essay of The White Album (1979), Didion includes an excerpt from her psychiatric report and elaborates upon it: ‘an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.’ Not simply using the report to elucidate the reasons for her psychiatric troubles, Didion here translates her somatic issues into cultural ones. In doing so, she alludes in a typically oblique manner to the inevitable fusing of subject with object, the insertion of the writer into the thing being written about. Tom Wolfe, in his 1973 anthology of personal, experience-driven reportage, termed this style ‘New Journalism’. Didion’s essays, however, feel far less declarative or definite than other ‘New Journalist’ writers such as Norman Mailer. The distinctively Didion-esque quality of this uncertainty arises from her frequent conflation of the individual and their surrounding community, the way in which she plays with the tension between detachment and immersion. As Alex Clarke says, ‘Didion was observing this world, that much was evident, but how far was she a part of it?’

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, in its thinly veiled enterprise to re-examine Didion and how she is implicated in her work, draws out the “I” of Didion’s prose and forces us to confront exactly what she is in relation to in her writing. The essay ‘’, Didion’s reflection on Martha Stewart’s personal brand and the cultish following it spawned reads self-reflexively. She writes:

'The “cultural meaning” of Martha Stewart’s success, in other words, lies deep in the success itself, which is why even her troubles and strivings are part of the message, not detrimental but integral to the brand. She has branded herself not as Superwoman but as Everywoman, a distinction that seems to remain unclear to her critics.'

Didion seems to be writing at least partly about herself: reflecting on the nature of her own literary success and the creation of her own iconic status in American culture. Although she perceives herself as ‘temperamentally unobtrusive,’ the very fact of Didion’s textual presence in her writing led to public interest in her neurasthenic persona. Interest then led to cult-status: the creation of Didion the icon alongside Didion the writer. She is in the minds of many a certain type of deity — of the literary, the cool. Let Me Tell You What I Mean, in documenting her lifetime’s work, exposes her lifelong concern with the “I” in writing. It suggests that in its conspicuous yet mythic appearance on the page, the current cult-like reverence around the writer-figure is an almost self-fulfilling prophecy. Such celebrity status seems to co-exist in a symbiotic relationship with her own mythologising on the page, both magnified by and magnifying the other. The cultural critic Hermione Hoby notes that this “Cult of Didion” is part of a wider tendency to fetishise books and intellectuality, and is what Christine Smallwood identified as ‘the merchandising of reading.’ Paired with the controlled iconography that she projects — Julian Wasser’s portraits of her leaning against a Corvette Stingray, cigarette dangling from her hand, always with an aloof expression — it is no wonder that her avid following are fascinated by what they think she means.

Their shared status as cultural icons, however, is where the similarities between Didion and Stewart end. Contrary to Stewart’s “everywoman” brand, Didion’s “I” is not an attempt to figure herself as the spokesperson of, or aspirational model for, the reading public. In his review of Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Didion, The Last Love Song, Louis Menand argues that critics make the common mistake of ‘interpreting [Didion’s] sensibility as a reflection of the times — to imagine, as Daugherty puts it, that she has “always spoken for us.”’ Indeed, in a column which she began writing for Life in 1969, Didion introduced herself as ‘a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.’ Heller, after spotting a copy of a Didion text shrunk down to pocket size, amusingly remarks that ‘I tried and failed to think of a writer who’d treat such a thing more mercilessly than the author of that book.’ As someone who has spent her career doing things on her own terms — writing for mainstream press publications and resisting their “factitious objectivity” whilst doing so — it seems surprising that Didion has become an object of such sentimental thinking.

Menand attempts to explain this apparent paradox by writing that she appeals to us because ‘[s]he’s not like us. She’s weird. That’s why we want to read her.’ But this fails to cover the full picture. The crucial appeal of Didion's work is the persistent ambiguity between intimacy and distance, an ambiguity which is perhaps the paradox of the cultish figure. We can only speculate whether Didion really wants to be an “icon”, but it is undeniable that in order to keep her mesmerised followers reading her work — and maintain her enigmatic appeal — she needs to both reveal herself and simultaneously create a certain distance.

This is of course presuming that the “I” written by Didion on the page is a direct translation of Didion herself. There exists an unspoken recognition between writer and reader that the written “I”, broadly speaking, serves not as a filter of truth, but a technical purpose. Indeed, in the foreword, Als asserts that ‘as every writer knows, writing is not inseparable from your body.’ Yet, while writing may well be detachable from the body, the matter of authorship is altogether more ambiguous. Authorship involves the publication of writing, the literal act of making public a piece of work, with the boundary between writing and authorship becoming blurred as a result of this process. In modern usage, authorship is a term that denotes not merely a practice but an identity; it necessarily imports an impression of the writer separate from the text. Consequently, in Didion’s writing, meaning is no longer found exclusively in the syntax – meaning also resides in the “I”, the imagined persona created for the Didion-author function.

The course of a writing life and the course of an authored career are no doubt concurrent, but a career begins only after one has begun to write. Let Me Tell You What I Mean self-reflexively retraces Didion’s career path, from the origins of her discovery of self-as-writer to the genesis of her iconic writer-figure. In turning back to the origins of “Joan Didion the Writer” from the lofty perspective of her current status as literary icon and cult favourite, she seems to be attempting to keep “writership” (the private act of writing) and “authorship” (the act of making that writing public) in a dynamic coexistence. This collection exemplifies how she embraces the “I” in her prose as a way of negotiating the plurality of the role she plays. It appears to cohere as an acknowledgement of Didion’s textual fluidity, an acknowledgement of the ambiguity as to whether her “I” is fictitious, or authentic, or constructed in the mind of the reader. The collection encourages readers to search for the “I”, the meaning in it all, but it is a meaning which Didion insists is elusive. ‘Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write,’ Didion explains in ‘Why I Write.’ Let Me Tell You What I Mean reveals, above all, that “Joan Didion” is as much a mystery to herself as she is to us. Contrary to what the title teasingly suggests, she never deals in the definite, least of all regarding herself.

LIZ MURPHY reads English at Balliol College. Rumour has it she and Jeff Goldblum share a wardrobe.

Art by Tara Kelly


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