Category Archives: Joan Didion

Links: Gag Rule

Shalom Auslander answers most of the questions in his Q&A with the Rumpus with jokes. Which makes moment when he (more or less) doesn’t, in response to a question about the connection between comedy and morals, interesting: “Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny)…. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness—its preachiness—and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.” I’m a fan of Hope: A Tragedy, though it deserves a fuller treatment than that linked blurb.

Caitlin Flanagan bids Joan Didion farewell.

Lorrie Moore considers the Roches, who “sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.” (Suzzy Roche has just published a novel.)

Robert McCrum on skimming novels.

Madison Smartt Bell offers a brief survey of New York City in fiction: “I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon.” (Thomas Caplan‘s 1987 novel, Parallelogram, which I hadn’t heard of, sounds interesting—proof, Bell says, “that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book.”

Jonathan Lethem: “Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away. I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.”

“The best rock novels I’ve read are more embodied with rock than overtly about rock.” (Related.)

Darin Strauss on when to start stories, drawing on an assertion by one of his former teachers that “story equals trouble.”

On the New Yorker provocateur Wolcott Gibbs.

Spin magazine is pursuing a Tweet-heavy reviewing strategy. I’m not panicking: It might work for book reviewing if somebody were skilled enough to do it well. As Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts noted in a recent interview, what gets taken away in reviewing is often replaced with something else. What’s changed (maybe) is some of the the economic incentive for long reviewing: “[Y]ou take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure.”

Pico Iyer‘s essay on long sentences has one bum sentence, a short one: “If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us,” he writes. This seems to imply that there was once a time when people didn’t oversimplify debates by reducing them to simple sentences—or a time when people didn’t try to oversell points by inserting them in brocaded ones. If books are shelters from “the bombardment of the moment”—and that’s not all they ought to be—it won’t be the length of the sentences that matter.

We Tell Ourselves XX in Order to XXXX

One of my favorite passages of Joan Didion‘s new memoir, Blue Nights, is a bit in which she discusses writing her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted. Here’s an excerpt of her draft:

“What we need here is a montage, music over.
How she: talked to her father and xxxx and
xxxxx—
“xx,” he said.
“xxx,” she said.
“How she:
“How she did this and why she did that and what
the music was when they did x and x and xxx—
“How he, and also she—”

“[W]hat I was doing then was never writing at all,” Didion writes. “I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying…. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.” This is interesting to me, because as often as fiction writers like to discuss the “musicality” of their prose—we’re always reminded of how important it is to read it aloud—it’s unusual to see a writer concerned about that to the point where it’s the first part of the drafting process. She guesses that it’s a little like how music is written, and that sounds right. I suppose the rough equivalent would be a click track, or the way some songwriters start to come up with lyrics by singing nonsense words over music; once you’ve sorted out what the words should sound like and where you put the emphasis, the words themselves can be just a kind of a polish.

I don’t know how well this succeeds in Didion’s fiction, because though I’ve read plenty of her nonfiction books I haven’t tried any of her novels. (She includes a finished version of that bit of the novel in Blue Nights; the sentences have graduated into a set of Hemingwayesque shards, more percussive than lyrical.) Obviously the process has worked for her for a while, though. In a 1977 interview she explained how her 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, was littered with TKs even in the late stages:

I made notes and wrote pages over several years, but the actual physical writing—sitting down at the typewriter and working every day until it was finished—took me from January until November 1969. Then of course I had to run it through again—I never know quite what I’m doing when I’m writing a novel, and the actual line of it doesn’t emerge until I’m finishing. Before I ran it through again I showed it to John and then I sent it to Henry Robbins, who was my editor then at Farrar, Straus. It was quite rough, with places marked “chapter to come.” Henry was unalarmed by my working that way, and he and John and I sat down one night in New York and talked, for about an hour before dinner, about what it needed doing. We all knew what it needed. We all agreed. After that I took a couple of weeks and ran it through. It was just typing and pulling the line through.

Didion’s Pre-Electoral Tension

The New York Review of Books‘ Web site has compiled some thoughts and observations from its contributors about the upcoming presidential election. Joan Didion, never much of an optimist when it comes to power-brokers’ ability to affect change, takes that last shred of hope and optimism you might have been feeling and cuts it to tatters. The campaign, she writes, has neglected any serious discussion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, race, intelligent design, the economy, education—and, perhaps least discussed of all, the role of presidential power. Didion’s final blow:

We could forget the 70 percent of American eighth graders who do not now and never will read at eighth-grade levels, meaning they will never qualify to hold one of those jobs we no longer have. We could forget that we ourselves induced the coma, by indulging the government in its fantasy of absolute power, wielded absolutely. So general is this fantasy by now that we approach this election with no clear idea where bottom is: what damage has been done, what alliances have been formed and broken, what concealed reefs lie ahead. Whoever we elect president is about to find some of that out.

Desperate Times Indeed

A musical adaptation of Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind is getting a critical pasting in London. From the Timesreview of “this tuneless assault on the English language”:

And those songs! They began to scale the depths. Refrains included “Born to Be Free”, “These Are Desperate Times”, “The Wings of the Dove”, until the inevitable “Tomorrow Is Another Day”. This was cliché orchestrated in the hope it would make it less of a cliché. It merely magnified the assault on the language. And still there was not a memorable tune, a curious crime when the 1939 film had one of the greatest theme tunes ever, by Max Steiner. The original cast recording from this stage musical would be a gift for your worst enemy.

Vanessa Redgrave‘s performance in another British stage adaptation, of Joan Didion‘s The Year of Magical Thinking, is faring better with critics.

The Last Thing They Wanted

I suspect that Guardian blogger Louis Wise is being somewhat broad-brush in characterizing Joan Didion as a neglected author in England–if she’s getting a spotlight at the National Theatre, things can’t be that bad. But Wise’s post does make me wonder if Didion is an American author who has an especially hard time getting over with foreign readers—her ’60s and ’70s essays, at least, have a level of specificity and detail about American life that might come off as a little guess-you-had-to-be-there. (Slouching Toward Bethlehem‘s California vibe made more sense to me when I was living in San Francisco, albeit a few decades removed from the stories the book tells.) So I don’t think sexism is at play here, at least in Didion’s case. (And not racism either—what’s with Wise’s claim that Joyce Carol Oates is “sidelined” by it?) It may simply be that Didion speaks more assertively in an American vernacular–one of those U.S. writers who could use a translator in the U.K.