Let Me Tell You What I Mean, by Joan Didion (Knopf: 2021), 192 pages.
Like oxygen, the coronavirus, and God, the revered American writer Joan Didion is seemingly everywhere and nowhere, at once vocal and silent, omnipresent and nonexistent.
On the one hand, Didion, who turned 86 late last year, has become an inescapable presence in the popular imagination: In 2015, instantly identifiable with her hollowed-out cheeks, blunt-cut white hair, and three-sizes-too-large sunglasses, she appeared in, of all things, an advertisement for a handbag concern, Celine, and, two years after that, she was the worshipful subject of a Netflix documentary directed by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. Having been granted a guru-like status not unlike that given to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Didion has emerged as a favorite of website writers and editors, who regularly assign posts with titles on the order of “Why Joan Didion, at 82, Is Still a Beauty Icon” (Vogue) and “6 Outfits Approved by Joan Didion” (Elle).
At the same time, Didion has not maintained a literary presence commensurate with her public profile. She has not produced a novel in a quarter-century (1996’s forgettable The Last Thing He Wanted). Her last major work of any sort came some 16 years ago. In 2005, Didion managed to write what is sure to stand as her most affecting, accessible, and popular book, a memoir recounting her anguish following the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, called The Year of Magical Thinking. For Didion, this was the book that launched, if not a thousand ships, at least a comfortable cottage industry. In 2007, Didion unveiled a stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Vanessa Redgrave, and in 2011, she penned a second memoir in the same vein, this time focusing on the death of Didion and Dunne’s grown daughter, Blue Nights.
One sensed in Didion’s increasingly confessional output a kind of gradual winding down. This is a surprising development for a writer who was once such an engaged commentator on the passing parade, reliably emerging, at times of national crises, in the pages of the New York Review of Books. In 1998, along with the rest of us, she avidly read and dissected the Starr report. In 2005, she contributed a measure of intelligent ambiguity into the discussion of the fate of Theresa Schiavo. Of course, writers have a right to retire, and Didion, more than most, has accumulated plenty of laurels on which to rest. The essays that first won her a following in the 1960s, particularly those gathered in her 1968 collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, remain incisive and vivid.
These days, though, Didion has withdrawn from the national conversation. Her most recent publications are made up of the sort of warmed-over, decades-old scraps typically set aside for an author’s heirs to assemble posthumously. In the 2016 book South and West: From a Notebook, Didion gathered impressions she had written of the American south in 1970 and of San Francisco in 1976; this material, not at all uninteresting, was intended as the basis for longer works that were jettisoned.
At least the material in South and West had the advantage of being fresh. The same cannot be said for the grab bag of previously published pieces that have been copied and pasted into Didion’s newest collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. The title is written in the present tense, giving the impression of Didion telling the reader, right now, what is on her mind, but the book is more of an exhumation than a revelation. Raiding her back catalogue, Didion has revived 12 pieces dating from the late 1960s—fully half from 1968 alone—and continuing up to 2000. Their main common feature is that their author has, until now, seen fit to exclude them from her books.
Few display Didion at her best and nearly all have a decidedly musty air. In “Alicia and the Underground Press,” a 1968 piece written for Didion and Dunne’s recurring column in The Saturday Evening Post, Didion offers a paean to the highly specialized, unapologetically reader-focused underground newspapers of the era. The trouble is not simply that the publications in question (the Los Angeles Free Press, Open City, the East Village Other) are long defunct, but that the media landscape Didion describes, in which these papers are presented as unique in unashamedly playing to their readers’ tastes and biases, is so quaint. Undoubtedly Didion would no longer contend that most large mainstream newspapers still “rest on a quite factitious ‘objectivity.’”
Sometimes Didion indulges in the sort of sentimentalizing of young people that seems utterly at odds with her disposition. For much of its length, “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” another Saturday Evening Post piece from 1968, is a modestly engaging account of the day in April 1952 when Didion received a letter of rejection from the admissions committee at Stanford University. “I stood reading and rereading it, my sweater and my books fallen on the hall floor, trying to interpret the words in some less final way, the phrases ‘unable to take’ and ‘favorable action’ fading in and out of focus until the sentence made no sense at all.” She soon shifts to a tiresome polemical tone inveighing against the era’s parents. “Finding one’s role at seventeen is problem enough, without being handed somebody else’s script,” Didion concludes, sounding very much like someone who has just taken in a viewing of, say, The Graduate.
In his foreword, critic Hilton Als notes that the strictures of writing for the Saturday Evening Post compelled Didion to be blunter than usual. “Didion had roughly two thousand words for the column, and she had to use them to tell the story of what she saw, felt, thought, which means that sometimes she used didacticism as a tool.” That’s a nice way to put it. In a 1968 Post profile of then-First Lady of California Nancy Reagan, “Pretty Nancy,” Didion uses her subject’s devotion to nice things as a cudgel, in a way that would be entirely unsurprising to those familiar with the hostility Reagan later faced in the White House.
There is value here. In a 1978 piece for New West, Didion writes with insight into the art of crafting short stories and the agony of selling them, chronicling the long path to rejection of a story originally assigned in 1964 by the Post fiction editor who subsequently declined to use it in print. There follows, over the course of several years, a cascade of further rejections, neatly itemized by Didion’s representatives at the William Morris Agency. “By winter 1967 I had begun a second novel, and never wrote another story,” Didion writes. “I doubt that I ever will.”
Ironically, the best piece here is a 1998 meditation on the artificially extended posthumous career of Ernest Hemingway for the New Yorker, which bears reading in light of the present volume. When Didion writes of “the systematic creation of a marketable product, a discrete body of work different in kind from, and in fact tending to obscure, the body of work published by Hemingway in his lifetime,” she could be referring to the leftovers gathered in her own two most recent books. Unfortunately, she, unlike Hemingway, is an active participant in the diluting of her own bibliography.
Peter Tonguette writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, and National Review.