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Remembering Joan Didion’s Masterful Observations
An exploration of why the late Joan Didion remains so important in today's literary culture.
03 January, 2022

Joan Didion died on the 23rd December 2021 in Manhattan, New York, at the age of 87. She began her five-decade career when she won a Vogue essay contest in her senior year of college. Since then, her literary wisdom moved from strength to strength. Her life’s work varied between essays and novels, primarily reflecting on the cultural shifts of twentieth century America. What many agree separated Didion from other writers was her relentless capacity to observe the situations unfolding around her. 

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. […] We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’ 

Joan Didion

Historically, journalists had been less visible figures, seamlessly telling a story with no reason for personal interjection. Didion wove personal touch into every story, detailing circumstances surrounding her interviews, wider cultural histories to tales of her native California. This Californian grounding enhanced Didion’s evocative voice, creating familiarity and comfort in every word. Her experience of growing up in Sacramento has become something of a cultural touchstone, one of her quotes prefacing Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird

Anybody who talks about California Hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.’

Joan Didion

Nonetheless, she writes with a paradoxical warmth and nostalgia for the state and the many stories it has to tell. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem she meets runaways and groupies for The Grateful Dead; even through the mist of lawlessness and discouragement in her tone, you cannot help but sense the rich texture of these people’s lives. The pictures painted are not necessarily pretty, but they are real. That may be the ultimate journalistic skill: to present any situation not romantically, but with a beautiful ease. 

In the fields of journalism and essay writing, she changed the way the world perceived itself, observing the social cataclysm of 1960s California as well as her own internal neuroses. In The White Album her tales flit from the travelling news of Sharon Tate’s murder on Cielo Drive and the rumours she recalls hearing on the following August day, to recounting tales of migraines and rib injuries she suffered. She finishes her chapter by returning to the events of Cielo Drive and what they meant within the context of 1960s Los Angeles. It is Didion’s mixture of contemporary zeitgeist and personal confession that draws you in. She observed events with neutrality, but her writing was by no means plain. In every celebrity death, every counter-cultural event, we feel the ricochets for every individual. 

This is what cements Didion as the ultimate observer. She depicted the events of the day, many of which could easily have ended up as newspaper pulp, in a way which showed the universality of human experience. This is why Didion will be remembered as a unique journalist; tales of life in backwater California became reflective of so much more, they defined not only a time and a place but a way of thinking, movements of ideology and the growth of modern ideas. 

Joan Didion is fondly remembered by many young women, especially those who grew to love reading and writing through her observations. Didion’s work is not easily defined by genre, with consistent clarity in personal essays and cultural journalism, representing the growing understanding of her generation that a woman was not any one thing. Didion saw the profoundness in others, while also curating her life to be one remembered full of multifacity.

2nd year Classical Studies student at King's.

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