When Joan Didion died, on Thursday, at eighty-seven, she left behind sixteen books, seven films, one play, and an impulse to make sense of what remained. It was tempting to note that, like her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, whose passing shaped “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), she died during the Christmas holiday. It was easy to see, as she did in her daughter’s lethal illness that same season, larger gears at work. Didion was a pattern-seeker—a writer with an uncanny ability to scan a text, a folder of clippings, or an entire society and, like a genius eying figures, find the markers pointing out how the whole worked. Through her efforts, the craft of journalism changed. She helped expand the landscape of what matters on the page.
Though Didion spent half her life in New York (first as a junior editor at Vogue, then, in a later stint, as a short-statured lioness of letters), much of her best-known work was done in California, where she’d grown up in mid-century Sacramento. Her ominous, valley-flat style channelled the Pacific terrain, with its beauty and severity and restless turns. “This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school,” she wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” the essay that opened her first collection, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968). That book announced her subject—the long, crazed shadow of the frontier mentality—and her style, which carried across five novels and several screenplays, not least “A Star Is Born” (1976), which she co-wrote with Dunne. Today, readers know what’s meant by “Didionesque.”
Like most strong stylists, though, Didion worked up her craft as a sensitive reader of other masters. She had been an English student, at Berkeley, in the nineteen-fifties, a high point for the New Criticism and its close reading, and the approach became part of her lifelong methodology, applied equally to language she encountered as a reporter and to literary work. In a New Yorker essay about Hemingway, her early influence, she performed an unmatched reading of the beginning of “A Farewell to Arms,” noting how the sudden, pattern-breaking absence of a “the” before the third appearance of “leaves” casts “exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition.” It was characteristic of Didion to work this way, in the danger zone between sensibility and objectivity: to be receptive to a passing feeling, a change in cast, and then to bear down, with unsparing rigor, in the work of understanding why.
What she came to understand was the vastest change that American society had seen in fifty years. Like many writers, Didion was on the spot in the late sixties, as the social fabric, the ideal of common institutions and of a shared society, came apart. Unlike many, she saw the long-term stakes of this rupture at a moment when most observers were fretting over whether to don love beads or to follow draft cards. Didion reported on the hippies—they’re the subject of the title essay of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which created a technique, later germane to her fiction, of telling a story through jagged juxtapositions that she called “flash cuts”—but recognized that what she saw in the Haight-Ashbury was less about them than about an “atomization” of communication and connection across America. It was a curiously durable insight for the period; it remains vivid and pressing today.
Didion often gets identified, along with Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and other snappy dressers, as part of the New Journalism, by which people usually mean long narrative reporting imprinted with a writer’s style and point of view. But her goal, in the best work, was never sensibility or affect. Early on, and again at the end of her life, Didion was known for her first-person writing, and subjective perception was always at the heart of her impulses as a reporter and as an essayist. (“Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me,” she once explained, in an interview with Hilton Als.)
Subjectivity was paramount, yet her thinking, as it developed in the pages of The New York Review of Books, was basically systemic: in “Miami” (1987), about the Cold War dialogue between the U.S. and the atomized powers of Latin America; in “Sentimental Journeys” (1991), about the Central Park jogger case, and the mythologies that eroded New York’s civil and economic structure; in “Where I Was From” (2003), about the governmental policies supporting California’s frontier image of itself. Her target was what she called sentimentality: the prefabricated story lines, or fairy tales, that spread within a culture and that cause society to rip apart. Didion started out a Goldwater Republican and ended up one of her cohort’s keenest champions of the social pact. She came to see that the way stories were told—an individualized project—had deep stakes for the societal whole.
Famous styles often make fossils of their practitioners. Didion’s work will last because it was the product of a restless mind. “In retrospect, we know how to write when we begin,” she once said. “What we learn from doing it is what writing was for.” How to put together a paragraph, whether to add a “the” or not: by the time you’re thirty, the sound of your best writing is already in your mind’s ear, and the hardest part is listening. What to do with those sentences, how to turn the craft of storytelling away from shared delusion, is the effort of a life. Many—most—writers never make it the full distance. Didion did. Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living are for. It ought to be ours, too.