Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

Steve Wasserman remembers Joan Didion: “She was always the consummate spectator, refusing to taint her stories with any personal intervention.”

Thursday, December 23rd, 2021
“If it’s second-rate, or worse, don’t give it the time of day.” (Tradlands, Creative Commons)

When Steve Wasserman, who now heads Heyday Books in Berkeley, left New York City to head the Los Angeles Times Book Review, author Joan Didion gave him some advice. Over a dinner at Elio’s on the Upper East Side, he recalls, “Joan gripped my forearm with steel in her fingers, and said: ‘Just review the good books.’ I laughed, and she said, ‘No, I mean something quite specific: Just because a writer lives in zip code 90210 doesn’t mean you have to pay attention. If the work is good, of course, but if it’s second-rate, or worse, don’t give it the time of day. To do otherwise is a formula for mediocrity, for the provincialization of the Review.‘”

Joan Didion died today of Parkinson’s Disease. She was the author of a score of books, including Slouching Towards Bethelehem in 1968. She won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Year of Magical Thinking. Steve wrote an appreciation of her at the San Francisco Examiner here. An excerpt:

“Joan’s death at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the landscape of California letters. There really was no one like her. She was, in a way, the least Californian of our state’s writers, if by ‘Californian’ we mean ever-sunny, full of optimism, wed to the conceit that history is weightless. Didion cast an unsparing eye on everything she examined. Her aesthetic, perhaps shaped as much by her early stint as a writer for William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative National Review as it was by the dessiccated temperament of her Yankee forebears, was chilly, unforgiving, hard. She reminded one nothing so much as Chauncey Gardiner, the protagonist of Jerzy Kosiński’s Being There, who liked ‘to watch.’”

He followed her advice, and never reviewed bad books.

“She was always the consummate spectator, refusing to taint her stories with any personal intervention,” he wrote. “And yet, and yet. For all her enviable craftsmanship and her gimlet eye, Joan’s work often risked ethical failure. She was so good that often her readers didn’t tumble to the sleight-of-hand that was baked into the DNA of her peerless sentences. The pixie dust she cast on the subjects she covered was dazzling, so much so that you often found yourself succumbing to the spell of her style, much as a genius cinematographer stacks the deck by shooting wonderfully and compellingly composed pictures. When the movie ends, you find yourself unable to look at the world — at least for a time — in any other way. Joan’s style was pitch-perfect. The framing was always impeccable and her skill so good that you tended not even to notice that she’d had her thumb on the scale. She often mistook her own sensibility for a general condition. The Wall Street Journal got it right when a review of her book on the atrocities of El Salvador was headlined: ‘A Migraine in Search of a Revolution.”

“Joan was something of a forensic writer, looking askance at the foibles of people, unrivaled in her understanding of the use and abuse of the English language. No one was better at deconstructing the syntax of power inherent in bureaucratic idiom. She understood with exemplary acuity how entire ideologies are concealed in the warp and woof of everyday language. She knew the devil was in the details. Almost every piece she wrote is an autopsy of the mentalities that have shaped American culture. Unusual for a writer who started out as a supporter of Barry Goldwater, Didion drifted leftward, always wanting, as she once remarked admiringly of former Ramparts editor Robert Scheer’s journalism, to know who does the screwing and who gets screwed.”

Read the rest here.

The movie: President Obama honors National Medal winners

Thursday, July 11th, 2013


Yayyyyy Kay!

Yesterday we wrote about the National Medal for the Humanities winners.  And today we have pitchas.  Here’s Kay Ryan, looking spiffy, accepting the award at the White House ceremony.

But wait a minute!  We hadn’t mentioned the National Medal for the Arts yet … or rather we did, because George Lucas and Tony Kushner were in fact winners of the arts medal, not the humanities medal.

jennyJust to sort everything out, here’s the complete list for both:

2012 National Medal of Arts: Herb Alpert, Lin Arison, Joan Myers Brown, Renée Fleming,  Ernest J. Gaines, Ellsworth Kelly, Tony Kushner, George Lucas, Elaine May, Laurie Olin, Allen Toussaint, and the Washington Performing Arts Society, Washington, DC.

2012 National Humanities Medal: Edward L. Ayers, William G. Bowen, Jill Ker Conway, Natalie Zemon Davis, Frank Deford, Joan Didion, Robert Putnam, Marilynne Robinson, Kay Ryan, Robert B. Silvers, Anna Deavere Smith, Camilo José Vergara.

Another familiar face is buried behind the “Washington Performing Arts Society”:  President and CEO Jennifer Bilfield (not Jenny Bellfield, as the subtitle says)  accepts the award on behalf of the organization in photo at right – you can read more about the society here.

But bleccchhh… some of the bland clichés that were offered to presumably reward excellence and innovation in the texts!  Robinson writes about “universal truths about what it means to be human.” The Washington Performing Arts Society has “inspired generations of young performers to follow their passion” – and follow their bliss, too, I’ll bet.  Silvers, co-founder of the New York Review of Books, “elevated the book review to a literary art form.”  So what about Edmund Wilson, Randall Jarrell, and a few others writing well before the NYRB launch in 1963?

We have the pitchas, but we also have the movie.  Kay accepts the award from President Obama at 28.05 below.  Jenny is at 20.42.

Lying: Sam Harris and the $1.99 book

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

Over at the Daily Beast, neuroscientist Sam Harris threw down the gauntlet, and I picked it up.  For $1.99 I bought Lying, his book on radical honesty, and downloaded it to my Droid.

This makes me something of an anachronism, apparently, in an era where everyone wants everything now, free.

Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. I have been very slow to appreciate these developments, and yet it is clear even to me that there are reasons to fear for the life of the printed book. Needless to say, many of the changes occurring in publishing are changes that neither publishers nor authors want.

The bestselling author points out that a Christopher Hitchens‘s article in the glossy Vanity Fair, praising the work of Joan Didion, gets fewer tweets and Facebook “likes” than one of his own blog posts – sometimes by a factor of ten. What’s worse, a heavily trafficked blog gets more hits than the entire splashy Vanity Fair magazine website.  It’s a sign of the impossible plight of my beleaguered profession:

Journalism was the first casualty of this transformation. How can newspapers and magazines continue to make a profit? Online ads don’t generate enough revenue and paywalls are intolerable; thus, the business of journalism is in shambles. Even though I sympathize with the plight of publishers—and share it by association as a writer—as a reader, I am without pity. If your content is behind a paywall, I will get my news elsewhere. I subscribe to the print edition of The New Yorker, but when I want to read one of its articles online, I find it galling to have to login and wrestle with its proprietary e-reader. The result is that I read and reference New Yorker articles far less frequently than I otherwise would. I’ve been a subscriber for 25 years, but The New Yorker is about to lose me. What can they do? I don’t know. The truth is, I now expect their content to be free.

So how does this get back to Lying?  In the “All Free, All Now” era, “If your book is 600-pages-long, you are demanding more of my time than I feel free to give. And if I could accomplish the same change in my view of the world by reading a 60-page version of your argument, why didn’t you just publish a book this length instead?” Harris’s response: the unprinted book that can be absorbed in one sitting.  In this case, Lying, a book about the need for absolute honesty in all aspects of one’s life.

It’s an interesting topic.  I would go further than he does, however.  Someone once defined lying as speaking about something one doesn’t know, as if one knew or could know.  For example, adhering to this standard would eliminate most political discussions, which would be a mercy.

I find that most lying, if not all, is an attempt to manipulate someone else’s reality to one’s own benefit – to control their choices by limiting the information they need to make informed choices, while keeping the full range of options for oneself.

It is said that no lie is innocent.  I thought of one exception: the lie to conceal a surprise birthday party.  But it pretty much stops there.

However interesting his topic, Harris’s gambit didn’t work, at least not entirely.  People still griped.

Some did not understand the format—a very short book that can be read in 40 minutes—and expected to get a much longer book for $1.99. Many wondered why it is available only as an ebook. Some fans of ebooks were powerfully aggrieved to find it available only on the Kindle platform—they own Nooks, or detest Amazon for one reason or another. However, the fact is that Amazon made it extraordinarily easy for me to do this; the Kindle Single is the perfect format for so short a book; and Kindle content can be read on every computer and almost any handheld device. I decided that it was not worth my time or other people’s money to publish Lying elsewhere, or as a physical book.

On the surface, the launch of Lying has been a great success. It reached the #1 spot for Kindle Singles immediately and #9 for all Kindle content. It is amazing to finish writing, hit “upload,” and watch one’s work soar and settle, however briefly, above the vampire novels and diet books.

I would be lying, however, if I said that I wasn’t stung by some of the early criticism. Some readers felt that a 9000-word essay was not worth $1.99, especially when they can read my 5000-word blog posts for free. It is true that I put a lot of work into many of my blog posts, but Lying took considerably longer to write than any of them. It is a deceptively simple book—and I made it simple for a reason. Some of my readers seem not to have appreciated this and prefer to follow me into my usual thickets of argument and detail. That’s fine. But it is, nevertheless, painful to lose a competition with oneself, especially over a difference of $1.99.

It didn’t quite work for me, either.  I still haven’t finished it.  If reading is confined to the in-between moments when I happen to have my Droid with me, not much more than an email message can be read in “one sitting.”  Moreover, aren’t all the health articles nowadays urging us not to sit on our cans for more than a few minutes at a time?

Everything seems to conspire against reading, nowadays.